Years ago, I was privileged to serve on the beit din for a conversion I will never forget. The forthright geir (the individual choosing Judaism) announced to the intergenerational and interdenominational beit din , "I am becoming an observant Jew. I will pay attention and be intentional about my Judaism all the days of my life." Her words have stayed with me. Too often, we Reform Jews do not claim the term "observant," for we associate it with keeping the 613 mitzvot. However, that daughter of Sarah and Abraham reminded me that there are many ways to understand and fulfill the challenges of living a rich Jewish life of service.
For many of us, this week of Pesach has been filled with observance and observations: rereading the Haggadah, rediscovering its poetry and song, and reclaiming our own place in our people's story of liberation. The Torah portion that we read on the seventh day, like the Haggadah itself, takes us back to the Exodus, back to the verses we read every year on Shabbat Shirah. Like the Haggadah, which has the power to surprise us anew if we open ourselves to new understandings of song and story, this portion reminds us of the first steps of our journey out of slavery-steps that become a dance of liberation through the Sea of Reeds and into the wilderness.
Our people left in a hurry: "So the people took their dough before it was leavened, their kneading bowls wrapped in their cloaks upon their shoulders" (Exodus 12:34). We have been eating the legacy of that speedy departure for the last week! Yet Moses remembered to bring along an additional sacred legacy: we learn in this portion that Moses carried his ancestor Joseph's bones out of Egypt.
"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). This is the second of three times that Joseph's bones are mentioned in the Torah. In Genesis 50:25, on his deathbed, Joseph speaks to his brothers: "God will surely take care of you; bring my bones up from this place!" The same verb, the Hebrew root pei-kuf - dalet , is used in both instances, translated as "take care" (Genesis 50:25) and "take notice" (Exodus 13:19). Adele Berlin points out that the same verb is translated as "remembered" when "God fulfilled a promise to Sarah [and] she became pregnant with Issac" in Genesis 21:1 (in The Torah: A Women's Commentary , ed. Tamara Cohn Eskenazi [New York: URJ Press, 2008], p. 296). The theme of memory is woven throughout the Joseph saga. His own story is one of being forgotten and being remembered. Once he dies, he is forgotten by those who most directly benefited from his management skills: "A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph" (Exodus 1:8). The Egyptians forget, but the Israelites are charged to remember. Joseph had told his brothers: God will remember the Israelite people, the descendants of Jacob, if they, if you, remember me.
Moses remembered. But how did Moses come upon Joseph's bones? The Talmud teaches that after the Exodus, there was a single survivor of Joseph's generation: Serah bat Asher. Moses sought her out, and her direction and good counsel enabled him to find Joseph's remains and thus fulfill his ancestor's last words (see Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 13a and M'chilta, B'shalach ). Who was this remarkable woman? The Rabbis interpreted her "remarkable longevity to . . . a powerful blessing . . . that her grandfather Jacob bestowed on her when she informed him in song that Joseph was still alive" (Midrash HaGadol and Sefer HaYashar on 48:8, cited by Judith Baskin, in The Torah: A Women's Commentary , p. 276).
Rabbi Hara E. Person gives Serah voice in a poem that knits together many strands of Serah's story and challenges the reader to think about the role of observation in preserving and creating memory. Serah, the child, sees her uncles throw their brother into a pit. Years later, after she is "rewarded" with eternal life for sharing her knowledge with Jacob, Person's Serah reflects on this "mixed blessing" as follows:
Endless life, for Joseph's life.
I became the family historian,
the keeper of tales,
the finder of bones,
the weaver of loose ends.
That is my gift from my grandfather,
to revisit sufferings and joys and wanderings
anew with each generation,
to observe endless cycles of loss and hope and pain,
of births and deaths,
never to rest, never to finish, only to witness. . . .
("Serah bat Asher," in The Torah: A Women's Commentary , p. 280)
Every Pesach, we too are witnesses to the "suffering and joys and wanderings." And if our observance leads us to read into and through the text, we see how our own journeys reflect those of our ancestors, discovering them "anew with each generation." Our tradition opens the way for us to become not only observers of, but also actors in the "cycles of loss and hope and pain / of births and deaths." But unlike Serah, we are not "only" witnesses, but also agents of action. Person's poem, and the continuing story of Joseph's bones, remind us of the urgency of claiming our agency, our intentionality, our own "observance" of Judaism.
Moses carried Joseph's bones with him and passed them on to Joshua. After Joshua's death, "The bones of Joseph, which the Israelites had brought up from Egypt, were buried at Shechem" (Joshua 24:32). As we conclude another cycle of observance and remembering, we too remember Joseph, who dreamed that his descendants would live in freedom. Joseph wanted to be buried not in Egypt, the land where he was always a stranger, but in a land of his dreams. Can we, like Moses and Joshua, carry the bones of those who came before us and, like them, attempt to realize shared dreams? May we be observant Jews as we continue our journey through the counting of the Omer.
(This d'var was written with appreciation for the insights of Jerome M. Segal, author of Joseph's Bones: Understanding the Struggle between God and Mankind in the Bible [New York: Riverhead Books, 2007]).
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, Ph.D., serves as the Rabbinic Director for the East Geographic Congregational Network.