The Bones of Joseph

Beshalach 5765 – The Bones of Joseph

by Rabbi Stuart Dauermann

Ahavat Zion Messianic Synagogue, Beverly Hills, CA

One of the poignant aspects of the recent Asian tsunami disaster is the way survivors have been desperately seeking to find the bodies of their loved ones, and to bury them.  I am reminded of what happened when Saddam was deposed and mass graves were discovered, how people began digging through the graves with their bare hands, looking for what? For the bones of their loved ones.  Our Torah reading brings us to consider the bones of Joseph our ancestor. Our Scriptures mention Joseph’s bones in three places: Genesis 50; Exodus 13, and Joshua 24.

Genesis 50:24-25 – “And Joseph said to his brothers: ‘I am about to die.  But God will surely come to your aid and take you out of this land to the land he promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.’ And Joseph made the sons of Israel swear an oath and said, ‘God will surely come to your aid, and then you must carry up my bones from this place.”

Exodus 13:19 – “Moses took the bones of Joseph with him because Joseph had made the sons of Israel swear an oath. He had said, ‘God will surely come to your aid and then you must carry up my bones with you from this place.'”

Joshua 24:32 “And Joseph’s bones, which the Israelites had brought up from the land of Egypt were buried in Shechem in the tract of land that Jacob bought for a hundred pieces of silver from the sons of Hamor the father of Shechem…”

One of the common denominators in these accounts is faith and faithfulness, which in both Hebrew and Greek are expressed with one word [emunah in Hebrew, pistis in Greek].

When Joseph makes his descendants in Egypt swear that they will not bury him there but will carry his bones around until they get to the Promised Land, how was he demonstrating faith or faithfulness?

When Moses and the children of Israel took his bones with them out of Egypt on their way toward the Promised Land, how were they expressing faith or faithfulness?

When, some eighty years later, Joshua and buries the bones of Joseph in the burial plot of his father in the Promised Land, how was he expressing faith or faithfulness?

Some of you have had to take care of the burial arrangements of family members. How does taking care of the burial arrangements of a loved one demonstrate faith or faithfulness?

Why is it that some relatives don’t want to get involved in the responsibilities of burying a relative? Perhaps it is because it is too often inconvenient or expensive.

Our tradition does not ask of us that we carry around with us our ancestor’s bones. But it does entrust us with another treasure: our Jewish heritage.

The kind of Messianic Judaism we espouse here in Ahavat Zion is one in which we seek to honor our ancestors and the God of our ancestors by venerating what they venerated–by showing respect for what they respected.

Just as they carried around the bones of their own fathers and mothers–the heritage passed on to them by previous generations–so, if we are faithful people, we will seek to honor the G-d of our ancestors and our ancestors themselves by carrying with us what they stood for and lived for–what they valued, and by passing that legacy on to our own children. “These words which I command you this day shall be in your heart, and you shall teach them diligently to your children.”

Moses expresses for us the balance between our personal experience in the now, and the heritage we have inherited from our ancestors.  Toward the end of our parasha, in Exodus 15:3, we read, “zeh Eli v’anvehu; elohei avi v’aromenhu.” This is my God and I will praise him, My father’s God and I will exalt him.”  He is not the God of my ancestors, he is also mine, and my way of life is not simply what “meets my needs.”  We are connected to the previous generations who like us were entrusted with a legacy which we are meant in turn to entrust to our descendants.

Returning for a moment to the metaphor of taking care of funeral arrangements, we all have a choice today and every day. We can be like those relatives who take responsibility for giving their loved ones a decent burial according to their wishes, or we can just stand off in the shadows and just hope that someone else takes care of it.

That means we ourselves can undertake the responsibility, the discomfort, the expense involved in honoring the heritage passed on to us by our ancestors or we can leave it to someone else. After all we are too busy, too sick, too old, too tired, live too far away, to be bothered. The rest of the family will understand, and certainly, our Father in heaven knows we are too busy, too sick, too old, too tired, live too far away to really get involved, doesn’t he?

There is a midrash, a creative and imaginative Jewish story, that wonders about how Moses found out where Joseph’s bones were.  It is also a discussion about taking spiritual responsibility.  Here is what it says:

“How did Moses know where Joseph was buried? It is said: Serah daughter of Asher, who was of Joseph’s generation, was still living.  Moses went to her and asked, ‘Do you know where Joseph is buried?’  She relied, ‘The Egytians made a metal coffin for him, which they sank into the Nile, in order that its waters might be blessed thereby.  Then, too, the magicians and the sorcerers told Pharaoh, ‘Do you wish that this people should never leave Egypt? If they do not find the bones of Joseph, they will never be able to leave.'”  Then Moses went to the bank of the Nile and called out saying, Joseph!  Joseph!  Joseph, the time in which the Holy One swore to redeem Israel has come, as had the time for the oath you had Israel swear.  If you will show yourself, well and good.  If not, we shall be released from the oath you made our forbears swear.

Immed iately, Joseph’s coffin began bubbling upward, rising out of the depths as if no heavier than a reed, and Moses took it.”

At a time when the children of Israel were plundering the Egyptians, preparing to leave the land in haste, Moses remembered that he had a responsibility to honor the oath which Joseph had enforced upon Israel.

Joseph cared enough about the ways of God to enforce an oath on his descendants that they carry his bones with them when God fulfilled his promise and brought them up out of the land of Egypt in their journey toward the Promised Land, that he be might be buried there.  Moses cared enough about the heritage he had received to go looking for the bones of Joseph.

What do you care about?  What do I care about?  I suggest we should care not only about ourselves and our own experiences–but also about preserving and honoring the legacy left us by our ancestors in custody for our children and the generations to come.

Indeed, as one author has put it, “Unless some things are carried from the past into the future, there will be no future worth having.”

Ladies and gentlemen, the bones of our ancestors lie before us–the way of life they venerated–the way of life that kept them together and kept them in life for countless generations, just as surely as Joseph’s bones kept him standing during his lifetime.  The question remains for all of us: Are we going to carry this way of life forward and entrust it to our children, or will we each just stand to the side and hope that someone else takes care of these matters instead of us?

The choice is mine.  The choice is yours.  The choice is now.  Even now the bones of Joseph are rising to the surface, crying out for us their family to make the financial sacrifices, the sacrifices of time, and the sacrifices of energy necessary carry forward these bones–the way of life and the sacred legacy entrusted to us–into the future.  This calls for involvement, this calls for participation, this calls for choice.

Joseph’s bones await our decision.  They are heavy.  They are precious.  Will we carry them forward into the future?

Stephanie Escalnate