The Bones of Our Ancestors

Va-y'chi, Genesis 47:28–50:26

D'Var Torah By: Anthony Fratello

Focal Point

At length, Joseph said to his brothers, "I am about to die. God will surely take notice of you and bring you up from this land to the land which He promised on oath to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob." So Joseph made the sons of Israel swear, saying, "When God has taken notice of you, you shall carry up my bones from here." Joseph died at the age of one hundred and ten years; and he was embalmed and placed in a coffin in Egypt. (Genesis 50:24-26)

D'var Torah

Surely we have all heard the song that goes, "O' bury me not on the lone prairie, where the wild coyotes will howl over me." Thinking of this song, we cannot help but picture in our minds Western movies wherein the lonely cowboy hero beds down for the night by a slowly dying campfire, singing a song of sweet lament that gently fades as the sun sets.

Were we to put aside our nostalgia for a moment and take time to consider what these words actually mean, we might view this song differently. This is a song of fear, one that speaks of the cowboy's terror of ending his days in a strange place where no one knows him, cares about him, or will think of tending his grave. The singer fears being forgotten and left behind in the wilderness, bereft of everyone and everything he has ever known.

This is not a unique lament. Our ancestor Joseph says essentially the same thing at the end of Parashat Va-y'chi. Though he does not set his song of fear and lament to music, like our cowboy he too does not want to be left behind, a stranger in a strange land, forgotten in a place that he knows his people will eventually leave. In keeping with the Egyptian life he has known as an adult, he consents to being embalmed and entombed in Egypt, but he does not want that to be his final resting place. He came as a sojourner, and a sojourner he will remain. And thus, he makes the Children of Israel swear that when God remembers them and brings them up out of Egypt, they will take his bones along with them.

Acting as his dutiful heir, Moses fulfills this final request: "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'" (Exodus 13:19). We lose sight of Joseph's body after this, finding the next mention of it in the Book of Joshua: "The bones of Joseph, which the Israelites had brought up from Egypt, were buried at Shechem, in the piece of ground which Jacob had bought for a hundred kesitahs from the children of Hamor" (Joshua 24:32). Joshua finishes the task given him by Moses, and Joseph is finally at peace.

To our modern sensibilities this story of Joseph's wandering corpse might seem gruesome or even abhorrent. We would never think of bringing along the bones of our ancestors with us as we schlepped around from place to place. However, I would argue that this is exactly what we Jews have always done.

My wife has a pair of silver candlesticks, the only possession that her great-grandmother brought with her from Byelorussia when she immigrated to the United States seeking a new life of opportunity and religious freedom. I am sure that many Jews have similar treasured belongings passed down from one generation to the next. But such treasured items are not limited to just things of silver and gold, or even brass, paper, or cloth. We all hold dear the wonderful works of literature that our ancestors spent their lifetimes writing. Two thousand years of Jewish thought have also been bequeathed to us, and we own these as part of our Jewish heritage. Ritual items, books, sacred thoughts, and musings-are these not the metaphoric bones of our ancestors?

We are who we are, and we do what we do, because we carry the bones of our ancestors with us-and in fact, we always have. Where others had to rely on a sacred site, a special city, or even a whole country to guarantee their continued existence, Jews have never needed such a thing. We managed to survive throughout those long generations with only memories of our sacred site, our special city, and our own country. We survived because ours was a portable religion, contained in the bones of our ancestors-one that we could pack up on our backs, and carry from place to place.

I fear, though, that this is ceasing to be the case. Now that we live in an age in which so many of our people's hopes and dreams have come to fruition, we are finding it easier and easier to consign the bones of our ancestors to a final resting place. Or, worse yet, we bury them in places we don't inhabit and in graves we never take the time to visit. As we face the many challenges of Jewish life in the modern world, we must recommit ourselves to bearing our ancestors' bones; we must recommit ourselves to their teaching, their thought, their legacy, and make that legacy an active and meaningful part of our modern lives.

This task may not be easy to accomplish. But if we succeed, our ancestors' bequest will sustain us as it has sustained countless generations. Then we will survive not only in our time, but also for generations yet to come.

By the Way

  • Moses found out that the Egyptians had made Joseph a coffin of metal and sunk it in the Nile. Moses went and stood by the Nile, took a stone, skipped it across the water, and called out, "Joseph, Joseph, the hour has come that the Holy One, blessed be God, is redeeming us, but we are delayed on your account. If you reveal your bones well and good, but if not, then we are relieved from your oath." Immediately, the coffin of Joseph floated and rose to the surface. (Tanchuma B'shalach, chapter 2)
  • The coffin (aron) of Joseph was carried alongside the Ark of the Covenant (Aron HaKodesh). Other travelers on the road asked, "What is the significance of these two boxes?" The people answered, "This is the coffin of a dead man, and this is the Ark of the Covenant." They asked, "Why does the dead man get to travel alongside the Ark of the Covenant?" They answered, "The one in this box fulfilled all that is written in that box." ( M'chilta D'Rabbi Yishmael, B'shalach)
  • I realized that this fierce desire to transcend the ceaseless ticking of the clock and to escape the ruinous touch of time was not confined to an obscure cult of ancient Buddhist priests. It blazes intensely in modern North America and Europe. . . . Millions of baby boomers have turned into ascetics, too, devoting themselves to the new cult of fitness and beauty. . . . For some of my generation, however, self-denial at the table and in the gym are only halfway measures. They venture further still, waging war on time and nature with the scalpel and the cosmetic surgeon's skill. . . . Those who are truly bent on self-preservation do not have to settle for such temporary measures, however. Real mummification is also available for a price in North America. (Heather Pringle, The Mummy Congress [New York: Hyperion Books, 2001])

Your Guide

  1. How does the oath that Joseph extracts from the Children of Israel affect us in light of the millions of unmarked graves from the Shoah?
  2. From what we know of Joseph's life, were the people correct in saying that he fulfilled all that was written in the Ark of the Covenant? Why or why not?
  3. In light of the quote from The Mummy Congress, what do you think Joseph's or Joseph's brothers' true goal was in allowing his embalmment? .
  4. What does Pringle's quote say to us about our own modern attitudes regarding self-preservation in both life and death?

Rabbi Anthony Fratello is the rabbi of Temple Shaarei Shalom, in Boynton Beach, Florida.

Reference Materials

Va-y’chi, Genesis 47:28–50:26
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 302–316; Revised Edition, pp. 304–322; 
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 281–304