Beshallach: All the Brothers

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Beshallach 

Dear Friends: 

This week the story of the exodus from Egypt reaches its climax, with the miracle at the sea and the great song in response. As the Israelites leave bondage in great haste, the Torah notes a small detail: 

“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.’ ” (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 a comment by Rashi that I didn’t consider prior to this year’s Torah reading cycle. First, please note, Moshe was probably not understood to be carrying a coffin, but an ossuary, a small box. Second, Moshe’s retrieval of the bones is the fulfillment of an oath made back in Bereshit 50: when Yosef was dying, he made his brothers swear to bring his bones up out of Egypt when the God redeemed them. 

Now onto something Rashi noticed and I didn’t: there is a slight difference between the report of that promise in this week’s Torah portion and where it is originally found in Bereshit 50. That’s the small phrase at the end of the verse quoted above: “with you.” The reason this little difference makes a difference is that Rashi assumes that the brothers weren’t going to be the ones to carry Yosef’s bones out of Egypt- their descendants would. According to Rashi, Yosef made them swear that they’d make their children swear to give Yosef a proper burial- and thus, “with you” (plural) means “your descendants will carry my bones out of Egypt along with all of your bones.” 

This completely changes our understanding of the verse. Rather than praising only Moshe for a singular act of filial piety, Rashi seems to believe that while Moshe carried Yosef’s bones, all the Israelites were involved in the rescue of the bones of their ancestors, bringing them out of Egypt towards repatriation in the Land of Israel. Not only does this understanding ascribe greater merit to the people as a whole, it also gives us an image of what it means to move forward on our journey: we cannot take just a piece of our history with us, but rather inevitably bring all of it. 

The image of the Israelites carrying the bones of the ancestors with them on their Exodus suggests to me that even when someone is going through a great transformation, they carry with them a legacy: of ancestors good and not-so-good, of deeds both loving and banal, of community and language and customs and hurts and strengths and all the rest of what makes us human. We can’t only carry Yosef with us- the proud and insightful leader- but we also carry Shimon, the zealot, and Reuven, whose failures of leadership and morality earned him rebuke from his father’s deathbed, and all the rest of the brothers and tribes. 

To be a people is to acknowledge that we are bound together with others across history and into a common destiny; to be thus bound, one to another, requires moral courage, because as much as we’d sometimes like to, we can’t leave any Jew outside the bounds of our community. That’s why all the bones of all the brothers came up from Egypt- because to be a people means to leave nobody behind. In our synagogues, schools, charitable institutions and defense organizations, we must try as best we can to be radically inclusive, to bring everybody in, to find a place for anybody who wants one. That, too, is a legacy of the Exodus; Yosef’s plea still calls us to action. 

Shabbat Shalom, 

RNJL 
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2 Comments »

  1. Marcy said

    Well said as always!

  2. Moshe Edelman said

    Neal
    Wonderful Dvar Torah. There is a very interesting woman named Serach bat Asher who according to midrashim lived and left for Egypt with Yakov. AND she lived and was alive when Bnai Yisrael left Egypt with Moshe. It was she who guided Moshe to the location of Yosef’s bones in the Nile . While the Bnai Yisrael were gathering silver and gold from the Egyptians Moshe was on a three day search and only when Serach heard about what Moshe was doing did he ultimately find the remains. She knew the secrets of “geulah”. Only because of her efforts did the children leave Egypt. Yosef’s burial in the Nile would have otherwise prevented the Israelites from leaving as they had vowed not to go without Yosef’s remains.
    You have added another “twist” to the redemption re: the other brothers and most importantly the message for us TODAY…
    Yasher koach

    Moshe Edelman

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