There is an old joke about a rich man who dies and stands before God. God asks, “I made you so wealthy, why did you give nothing to charity?” The man answers, “I will, I have many assets on earth, just let me give now!” The response from God thunders, “Up here, we only accept receipts.”
It is axiomatic that you cannot take anything with you when you die. But the reverse is not true – you can take the dead with you when you are alive. This finds both literal and metaphorical expression in this week’s Torah portion when Moses locates and carries the bones of Joseph with him as the Israelites leave Egypt. The verse says Moses took the bones “with him” and the Kli Yakar comments that Joseph stayed with him, for while gold and silver passes away, the merit of this act endures.
Centuries before, at the end of Genesis, Joseph entreats his brothers to swear that when God remembers them to bring them to the Promised Land, “You shall carry my bones from here” (Gen. 50:25). Now we get a bit more detail. In Ex. 13:19, we read that Joseph “exacted an oath,” which in Hebrew is two words, hashbe’a hishbia. What does the doubling mean?
Joseph knew that his brothers would not live to see the redemption and so he was exacting an intergenerational promise – you and your descendants. For hundreds of years, throughout the servitude and oppression of Egypt, the Israelites would remember that the bones of Joseph waited for liberation as well.
From the act of fidelity to an ancient promise, three fundamental lessons of the Jewish tradition flow:
Intergenerational obligations. Judaism considers that Jews are born with responsibilities because they are Jews. The Rabbis often appealed to the idea that each soul stood at Sinai, so each of us actually assumed the obligations of Jewish life upon ourselves.
But on another level, we are all born into networks of responsibility. We feel the tug of family, community, country. We did not choose these but must make our accommodation with them. If we are fortunate in the circumstances of our birth, we view such ties as a privilege.
When Judaism enjoins us to teach our children, it reminds us that to be Jewish is both a command and an honor, and part of it is to ensure that the next generation remembers the sacrifices and celebrations of those who came before. The simultaneity of Jewish life means we live in the past and the present at once.
Memory. The midrash tells us that the location of Joseph’s coffin was no longer known. But there is one name mentioned in both the descent to Egypt and again in the ascent – Serah bat Asher. The Rabbis posit therefore that Serah survived the slavery of Egypt. Serah, as has been true with so many women in Jewish history, carried the memory with her. She told Moses where to look for Joseph’s coffin.
Modeling what matters. The Israelites had gathered valuables from the Egyptians as a sort of recompense for centuries of unpaid labor. But the greatest among them was occupied not with gold and silver but in finding and retrieving the bones of Joseph. As the two caskets went side by side through the wilderness, the coffin of Joseph and the ark of the tablets, the Israelites would tell whoever asked, “The one who lies in this fulfilled the words that lie in that” (Mechilta, Beshalah).
One way to define ourselves is by asking what we carry. All of us carry a great deal through life – memories, aspirations, relationships, burdens, natural gifts. Some focus so intently on carrying material possessions that other things fall by the wayside.
To carry the bones of Joseph is the Torah’s way of telling us that Moses carried the past of our people with him as they began the journey to Israel.
What do you carry?
The writer is Max Webb Senior Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and the author of David the Divided Heart. On Twitter: @rabbiwolpe.