Beshallach 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Beshallach

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5761 and can be found in its archives.

BeShalach (Ex. 13:17-17:16)


The Israelites leave Egypt after the final plagues force Pharoah to surrender; however, once the Israelites have actually started to leave, Pharoah has a change of heart and decides to chase after them with his army. The Israelites come to the Sea of Reeds, but are able to cross after God parts the waters, which then come together and drown the pursuing Egyptian army. Moshe sings his “Song of the Sea,” and Miriam leads the women in dance and rejoicing. The people repeatedly complain, despite the fact that God provides them with miraculous food and water. At the end of the parsha, there is a battle with the nation Amelek.


“Moshe took the bones of Yosef with him because Yosef had made the Israelites swear an oath. He had said, ‘God will surely come to your aid, and then you must carry my bones up with you from this place.’ ” (Genesis 13:19)


In the final chapter of Genesis, as Yosef is about to die, he tells his extended family that God will eventually bring them out of Egypt and bring them to the Land of Israel. He then makes them swear that they will bring his bones out of Egypt when they leave. (Genesis 50: 24-26)

Many generations later, Moshe fulfills this promise as the Israelites are hurriedly escaping from slavery. The rest of the people are armed for battle, but Moshe remembers the commitment made to their ancestor.


Before we discuss what the Torah might be trying to teach us with the image of Moshe carrying Yosef’s bones, a brief word about ancient burial practices is in order. We know from archaeological evidence in Israel that burial was sometimes a two-stage process: after a period of time, a body’s bones were sometimes reinterred in a small box called an ossuary. Although it says in Genesis 50:26 that Yosef was embalmed (see this week’s Reb on the Web for more on that subject), I think the Torah is portraying Moshe retrieving a small ossuary, not a full-sized coffin.

In either case, it’s a fascinating image, a single sentence tucked in among the epic depiction of one nation escaping another. A famous midrash says that the rest of the Israelites were busy looting the Egyptians, and only Moshe remembered the promise to Yosef. (Talmud, Sotah 13a) Taking the midrash no further, it’s a powerful image of commitment and fidelity, not to mention clarity of purpose in a crazy, chaotic situation. We might also read this midrash as a statement of the importance of Jewish responsibility for each other – not only did all the Israelites have to leave Egypt together, even the bones had to come out- nobody could be left behind.

A later interpretation of this passage makes a pun between the word for bones and a word which means identity or essence of character:

    Moshe took the bones [atzmot] of Yosef. . . . the essence [atzmut] of Yosef, his character and the content of his spirit- that’s what Moshe took for himself, at the moment when he accepted the role of being the leader of Israel. Just as Yosef returned goodness in place of evil, [when he said to his brothers], “I will sustain you,” (Genesis 50:21) Moshe took upon himself to lead this flock with this trait, changing their stubbornness with patience and forgiveness and treating them only with kindness. (Source: Itturei Torah, translation mine.)

In this reading, what Moshe realizes that he needs to take out of Egypt is not something physical, but an intangible personal quality- he takes with him the generosity of spirit that Yosef displayed after Yaakov died, when his brothers feared that Yosef would take revenge on them for selling him into slavery as a young man. As we see later on in this Torah portion, and then throughout the books of Exodus and Numbers, Moshe would often find himself in conflict with the people he was leading, who often complained and showed little gratitude. Thus, he would need the same qualities of forgiveness and understanding that Yosef had- this was essential to his journey, and to ours.

1 Comment »

  1. […] shall carry up my bones from here with you.’ ” (Shmot/ Exodus 13:19)  I’ve written about this passage before, but not for a long time, so it’s time to revisit this verse, especially in light of […]

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