“And Moses took with him the bones of Joseph, who had exacted an oath from the children of Israel, saying, “God will be sure to take notice of you: then you shall carry up my bones from here with you.” (Exodus: 13:19)
Leaving Egypt can easily be described as the single most formative moment in the history of our people. It is the event that gets its own holiday, it is mentioned every Friday night in the Kiddush [זֵכֶר לִיצִיאַת מִצְרַיִם] right after we remember the creation of the world, and we are reminded of it throughout the rest of the Torah with great frequency, making it impossible to forget.
Despite the haste in which we left (remember not having time for our bread to rise), Moses made sure he fulfilled the promise to bring with him the bones of our ancestor and forefather Joseph, as Joseph made his brothers promise him they would do so probably not anticipating a 400 year lag period.
According to one Midrash found in the Mekhilta of Rabbi Yishmael, Moses was unaware of the location of Joseph’s bones and it was Serah bat Asher, Jacob’s granddaughter, the longest-living survivor from Joseph’s generation – and incidentally one of a few occasions in the Torah/Midrash where a woman is the hero of the story – knew exactly where her Uncle Joseph’s coffin had been hidden. As a wise old woman, she was able to help Moses discover the specific location where Joseph’s bones were to be found, submerged beneath the Nile:
“It is told that Serah, the daughter of Asher survived from that generation and she showed Moses the grave of Joseph. She said to him: The Egyptians put him in a small metal coffin which they sunk in the Nile. So Moses went and stood by the Nile. He took a table[t] of gold on which he engraved the Tetragrammaton (the four-letter unpronounceable name of God), and throwing it into the Nile, he cried out and said: “Joseph son of Jacob! The oath to redeem his children, which God swore to our father Abraham, has reached its fulfillment.” Immediately Joseph’s coffin came up to the surface, and Moses took it. (Mekhilta, Beshalach, 2)
Once out of Egypt, the Israelites carried Joseph’s bones on the trek through the Sinai desert with a reverential sense of the sacred. According to the Babylonian Talmud, both the bones of Joseph and the Ark of the Covenant were carried by the Israelites side-by-side through the wilderness:
“All those years that the Israelites were in the wilderness, those two chests, one of the dead and the other of the Shekhinah, proceeded side by side, and passersby used to ask: “What is the nature of those two chests?” They received the reply: “One is of the dead and the other of the Shekhinah.” “But is it, then, the way of the dead to proceed with the Shekhinah?” They were told, “This one [Joseph] fulfilled all that was written in the other.” (BT Sotah 13a-13b)
According to Dr. Simcha Paull Raphael in his book Living and Dying in Ancient and Modern Times, for the Israelites on their forty-year long desert journey, Joseph’s bones are not an after-thought, a residue from ancient days transported with a sense of habituated duty, and nothing more. Instead, just like the Ark of the Covenant and the Ten Commandments contained therein, the ritual carrying of Joseph’s bones are in a sense essential to the spiritual foundation of the nation.
In complying with Joseph’s deathbed request to “bring my bones up from here with you” (Genesis 50:25), for the wandering Israelites, the Sinai journey becomes both a pilgrimage to freedom, as well as a national funeral procession honoring the dead, that, at one and the same time, carries forth the legacy of the ancestors.
Not unlike the Israelites leaving Egypt, many of the early Zionists who Zionism as a liberation movement, made the opposite point and fled Europe leaving their ancestors behind. They did not want to Schlep the Galus )Exile) with them as they worked to reinvent themselves and our Jewish existence in this Old-New Land. It was necessary to start fresh and reinvent themselves as “New Jews” leaving their physical weakness, the life of strict adherence to Jewish law, and communal insularity behind.
In coming to Israel, I also thought that I would leave behind the Judaism of my ancestors and my upbringing. I aspired to become a secular-nationalist Jew and that religion, tradition, and the spiritual foundation of our people was nice for the Diaspora but unnecessary in the Jewish State. I quickly realized that much like the Jews of Yemen, Morocco, and Eastern Europe, etc, the spiritual and religious tradition of my upbringing could play a major role in shaping the fabric of this Jewish society.
I came to the conclusion that we could not separate the Jewish religion from Jewish nationalism, or we could not separate Judaism from Jewishness, and that we needed to offer an alternative in order to create a balance for Israelis for whom their Israeli-ness was, in fact, the expression of their Jewish identity and were searching for meaning, community, identity, and yes possibly even spirituality – despite a resentment to the coercive and authoritarian structure of State-sponsored Orthodoxy.
I found my Zionist expression in working to bring, expand, and nurture Reform Judaism in Israel which provides a deeply authentic connection to our spiritual heritage, our tradition, and offers the possibility of continuing to evolve our religious civilization. And so I ask you to join me in this Reform Zionist effort. Join me by carrying the bones of Joseph and the Ark of the Covenant. Join me by bringing our past with us as we reinvent and adapt to modernity. Join me as we work to fulfill the words of Rav Kook:
הישן יתחדש והחדש יתקדש – The old will be renewed and the new will become Holy.
Join me in this sacred and critical mission by Voting in the World Zionist Congress Elections – and do so today – will get us one step closer to changing today’s reality.