Now when Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer; for God said, “The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt.” So God led the people roundabout, by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds. (Exodus 13:17–18)
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)
Many of us are familiar with values clarification exercises that ask us to choose a small number of objects we would carry with us if we had to evacuate our home in a hurry. Some of us have even had the experience in real life—in the wake of a hurricane or a fire. What do we rush for? What is essential to our existence?
Our grandparents and great-grandparents faced this quandary when they left Europe for safer shores. All of us faced this quandary when we left Egypt.
Trying to imagine what it looked like the night we left Egypt, we are likely to conjure up images of mayhem and terror. Throughout Egypt, cries of anguished parents filled the air. The Israelites, instructed to borrow objects of gold and silver from their Egyptian neighbors, hastily grabbed the items as they rushed to leave. But Moses knew he must, amidst all the confusion, find one additional thing—the bones of Joseph.
When Moses carries Joseph’s bones out of Egypt, it is the fulfillment of a promise made 400 years before: “So Joseph made the sons of Israel swear, saying, ‘When God has taken notice of you, you shall carry up my bones from here’” (Genesis 50:25).
The midrash (M’chilta, B’shalach) teaches that Moses, not knowing where to find the bones, finally learned of their location from Serach, the daughter of Asher, a survivor of the original generation that left Egypt. She said, “Moses, my master, Joseph is buried in the Nile River.” Moses went and stood at the front of the Nile. He said, “Joseph, Joseph, the time has come to redeem the oath that you exacted from your brothers.” Immediately, the coffin floated to the surface, and the box containing Joseph’s bones was carried throughout the forty years of wandering until it could be buried in Eretz Yisrael.
The Hebrew word for the receptacle for Joseph’s bones, aron, is one usually reserved for the box in which we keep the Torah scrolls and for the container that housed the Tablets of the Law throughout our wanderings. What is the connection between these two uses of the word aron? “To show that in one aron was a man who fulfilled the commandments contained in the other” (Sotah 13a–b as quoted in The Torah: A Modern Commentary, ed. W. Gunther Plaut [New York: UAHC Press, 1981], p. 318).
Joseph lived most of his life outside of Eretz Yisrael where he endured cruelty, punishment, poverty, hunger, and fear. Yet, he grew into a man of exemplary faith and trust in God’s will. He always believed in what he learned from his father, that God would keep the promise made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob: the Jewish people would be redeemed and would return to make its home in Eretz Yisrael. The aron with Joseph’s bones served as a symbol of the kind of obedience and faithfulness expected of the Israelites as they made their way to their new home.
Another midrash on this text helps clarify the importance of Joseph’s presence along the journey through the wilderness. The Hebrew term atzmot (literally, bones) is related to atzmut, the Hebrew for “personality” or “good character.” The verse can be interpreted to mean that Moses took with him the good qualities of Joseph, learning from Joseph's example how to lead a people and keep it satisfied in times of hunger (Torat HaMoreh, quoted in The Torah: A Modern Commentary, ed. W. Gunther Plaut [New York: UAHC Press, 1981], p. 485).
This kind of inspiration would be invaluable to Moses along the way, for the opening of the portion reveals that this journey was going to be longer than anyone would have had reason to expect: “Now when Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer. . . . God led the people round-about, by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds” (Exodus 13:17–18). What might have been a month-long trip became a forty-year journey.
We pack differently for long trips than we do for short ones. For forty years Joseph’s bones called upon us to remain faithful and focused on our goal.
By the Way
- “There’s no place like home.” (Dorothy Gale, in the movie version of The Wizard of Oz)
- One commentator translates ki karov hu [although it was nearer] as “because God was near to them.” (Minchah B’lulah, as quoted in Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary, [New York: Rabbinical Assembly, 2001], p. 399)
- The idea of Eretz Yisrael as the Promised Land is essential to Jewish tradition. How do the midrashim about Joseph’s bones reinforce this idea?
- Jeffrey Salkin writes, “To carry the bones is to possess the sacred; to bury the bones means getting on with life” (see his essay in the Learn Torah With . . . 5755, ed. Rabbi Stuart Kelman and Joel Lurie Grishaver [Los Angeles: Alef Design Group, Torah Aura Productions, 1996], p. 124). We have discussed the ways in which the bones were important along the journey; why must they have been buried in Eretz Yisrael?
- How does the idea that God was near to the Israelites throughout their journey (from Minchah B’lulah) intersect with the teachings of Joseph’s bones discussed above? What other signs of God’s presence appear in this portion?
- There have been many explanations for the reasons behind our forty-year journey through the wilderness. In what ways do you think it was necessary?
Sharyn H. Henry is rabbi/educator at Rodef Shalom Congregation in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.