Yosef’s Bones, Yosef’s Greatness

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Pesach

Chag Sameach [happy holiday] from the foggy and drizzly North Shore!

We’re in the middle of Pesach [Passover] this week, so the regular weekly
Torah reading is set aside for a special text connected to the holiday- all
week, in fact, there have been readings from different part of the Torah which
mention or explain the Pesach celebration.

This Shabbat is the seventh day of Pesach, so the reading is Exodus 13:17 –
15:26. The seventh day reading begins where the Torah portion Beshallach
begins, with the Israelites actually picking up and leaving, and concludes with
the “Song of the Sea,” the great victory poem that Moshe sings after the
Israelites have crossed the sea and left the pursuing Egyptian army behind

It makes perfect sense to read the Song of the Sea at the end the week of
Pesach, since the Exodus was a process, beginning with the preparations
four days before the night of the 14th, and ending with the Israelites safe from
Pharoah on the other side of the sea. This story stretches out from Shmot/
Exodus 12-15 (more or less), and in fact, most of these chapters from the book
of Exodus are read over the course of our holiday week, on days one, three
and seven. (Why the readings aren’t continuous, but skip around different
parts of the Torah on different days, is a question for another time.)

A benefit of reading the entire exodus narrative is that we are reminded of
small details, some of which carry great meaning. So amidst the familar parts
of the story, like the plagues and Pharoah’s recalcitrance and the splitting of
the sea, there’s an episode that you may not have noticed, in which Moshe
fulfills the promise made by Yosef’s [Joseph’s] brothers (at the end of the book
of Genesis) to bring his bones out of Egypt, back to the land of Israel:

“And Moshe took with him the bones of Yosef, who had exacted an oath from
the children of Israel, saying, `God will be sure to take notice of you: then
shall carry up my bones from here with you.’ ” (Shmot/ Exodus 13:19)

Imagine the scene: all the Israelites are scurrying about, leaving Egypt in a
hurry (too fast for their bread to rise, after all), but Moshe remembers a
promise made hundreds of years beforehand, and finds an ossuary probably
long forgotten by everybody else. The emotional symbolism is almost
palpable: just as God remembered the Divine Promise to the Israelites in
Egypt, so too will the Israelites remember their promise to the man who was
responsible for saving their ancestors by bringing them to Egypt. Yosef was
the first Israelite to be sold into slavery, which brought him down into Egypt,
but now even Yosef will be liberated from the land which both imprisoned and
empowered him.

So perhaps we could say that Moshe goes and gets Yosef’s bones because
to do so is to bring the story full circle, as it were. Yet I think there is
reason that Yosef is brought back into the exodus narrative, and it’s crucial to
the spiritual message of the Pesach holiday. Let’s remember that Yosef is
sold into slavery by his brothers, yet after many years, he reveals himself to
them (after he’s become Prime Minister) and provides for them during the
famine. Yosef- in my understanding- eventually relinquishes the bitterness he
might feel towards his brothers, in order to move their lives forward together.

Similarly, there is actually a commandment in the Torah not to hate Egyptians
(cf. Deuteronomy 23:8), even after the years of slavery and oppression. In fact,
we dramatize this point at our Seder by pouring out a drop of wine for each of
the plagues, in order to demonstrate that our cup of joy is lessened when
human beings suffer, even if those people are our enemies in a present
conflict. The holiday of Pesach is about taking joy in our liberation, not about
bitterness or desire for revenge- even when Pharoah’s army is drowned, the
midrash [ancient Biblical interpretation] says that God stopped the angels
from singing, since human beings were suffering and dying.

It’s really hard not to hold a grudge. I struggle with it every single day; it’s
easiest thing in the world to remember wrongs and hold on to the resentments
of past humiliations. Much harder is to be like Yosef, taking back his
estranged brothers, even after they sold him into slavery. So maybe that’s why
Moshe went to go get Yosef’s bones- he was going to need this reminder of
Yosef’s spiritual greatness if he was going to move his people into the future
and not have them get mired in bitterness over the past. Leaving Egypt meant
leaving the state of enslavement- including the mental enslavement of
emotional paralysis in negativity and resentment. That’s what Yosef did, and
that’s what Pesach challenges us to do, too.

You can read the text of the seventh day Torah reading here:


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