The Bones Of Joseph
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Shabbat Beshalach

The Bones Of Joseph

Beshalach begins with the Israelites leaving Egypt. This Exodus depicts God as the actor, with the Israelites described in passive terms. One truly active step by the Israelites, specifically by Moses, is the carrying of Joseph’s bones with them out of Egypt as the fulfillment of a promise to Joseph. The promise was imposed by Joseph on the Israelites as a whole. Despite the fact that Moses, who as the leader surely had a tremendous amount to do and to think about on this day, does it himself. He raises Joseph’s bones from their burial spot at the bottom of the Nile.

Joseph’s directive is an interesting one. It is not surprising that Joseph would want to be buried in the Land of Israel, not in Egypt. He could, however, have asked to be taken to be buried there immediately after his death, as Jacob did. Joseph certainly had the political clout to make that request. He chose, however, to do something different. Rather than looking at the past, he looked ahead. The promise that he secured from the Israelites was a combination of promise and prophecy. This promise included an assumption that the time would come that they would leave Egypt. Proper burial was incredibly important in the Bible. Joseph was willing to base his future resting place on his belief that his people would leave Egypt. Therefore, carrying his bones was not only the fulfillment of a promise, it was a statement that this action was a part of a longer process: the fulfillment of God’s promise.

Taking actions as a statement about the future is a running theme throughout the Bible. While they are about to be exiled to Babylonia, Jeremiah is told to buy land in Israel, a statement of hope in the future [Jeremiah 32:6]. Isaiah is told to make certain prophecies not to effect change in the present, but rather to show later that the prophecies were accurate [Isaiah 6:9]. The Bible is concerned with continuity in history. History is the arena where God acts, so showing continuity in history is a way of showing faith in God.

We also cannot help but see one more biblical connection: Ezekiel’s vision of the bones [Ezekiel 37]. In that vision, Ezekiel sees a valley of dry bones, but Ezekiel calls for the bones to become covered with flesh and spirit and become alive again. Here, too, the bones carry the covenantal hope for the future, one that is essential for the continued life of the people.

Thus, while God makes sure that the Exodus happens, and that the Israelites leave Egypt, Moses takes the most significant step he could, redeeming Joseph’s bones. Carrying those bones was a way of saying that while leaving Egypt may be overwhelming and scary, the Israelites had absolute confidence that they will end up, as God promised, in the Land of Israel.

Although the discussion is about Joseph’s bones, Joseph was embalmed. Moses should be speaking about carrying his body, but the emphasis is on bones. Embalming is particularly Egyptian. Ignoring the embalming is part of leaving Egypt behind as the people set out to their particularly Israelite future.

Faith in the future was tested when the Israelites arrived at the Red Sea. With the Egyptians in pursuit, many were afraid. The Midrash speaks of Nachshon ben-Aminadav,  who was willing to jump into the sea even before the waters split. Only after Nachshon leapt in did God split the sea. Many speak of Nachshon as a metaphor for a willingness to see beyond the present reality and have faith in the future.

I would say, however, that we do not need to look to the Midrash for that image. Joseph’s request, and Moses’ fulfillment of that request, are all the metaphor we need for a combination of confidence, hope and action. May we strive to have Joseph’s faith and confidence and Moses’ understanding of the long arc of history, in our lives and in our work, as individuals and as a people.

Ora Horn Prouser is the executive vice president of the Academy for Jewish Religion, a pluralistic school for rabbinic and cantorial training in Yonkers.

Candlelighting, Readings:

Shabbat Candles: 4:38 p.m.

Torah: Ex. 13:17-17:16

Haftarah: Judges 4:4-5:31

Havdalah: 5:40 p.m.

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