Taking It With You: Bringing Joseph’s Bones Out of Egypt

January 1999

Rabbi Leon A. Morris 

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayechi, Joseph and his brothers show two very different ways of reacting in response to the past. Joseph’s brothers fear that he will take revenge on them once their father has died. They ask, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrong that we did him”  (Genesis 50:15).  Joseph responds, “Although you intended me harm, God intended it for good” (Genesis 50: 20).

Joseph’s faith enables him to gather strength from his disappointments and trials. He transforms himself from a spoiled, narcissistic young man who held himself above his brothers into a model of compassion, forgiveness and leadership.

Joseph’s brothers are paralyzed by their past; they dwell on their own acts against their brother, doubting their brother’s willingness to forgive. In contrast to them, Joseph is able to use the painful experiences of his past as a means of acquiring wisdom and maturity. In his capacity to suffer, Joseph discovers his ability to change. His difficulties help him mature. We learn from the story of his life that obstacles, pain and suffering are opportunities for us to grow as individuals.

The story of Joseph’s death teaches the Jewish people how to react to its collective past. The portion ends with Joseph’s death at the age of 110. On his deathbed, he makes his brothers take an oath that when they leave Egypt, they will carry his bones with them and take them back home to the land of Israel. “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).

Indeed, 400 years later in the Torah’s narrative, we hear again about the bones of Joseph, when the Israelites are on their way out of Egypt and remember the oath made to him. They find his coffin and take the bones with them through their 40 years of wandering in the desert.

The Mechilta of Rabbi Ishmael, an early halachic midrash on Exodus, explains that the Israelites carried two arks side by side. One of them, the ark of the covenant, contained the tablets of the law given to Moses. The other contained Joseph’s bones. According to the midrash, what was written on the tablets of one ark was fulfilled in the life of the one whose bones rested in the other ark. We can think of one ark as containing Torah; the other, a human who became Torah.

While the children of Israel carried Joseph with them,‘ previous generations of American Jews neglected the oath made by the Israelites. They viewed our past, its traditions and sacred texts as dried and discarded bones that had been carried through thousands of years of wandering. Some thought that these relics of our past held us back.

But these “bones,” if carried well, help us move ahead. Study, prayer, ritual and acts of loving kindness actually prevent us from staying in the same place. They help us move beyond ourselves. And so the story of Joseph’s bones challenges us to hold on to our people’s past in a way that helps us to progress, to reach new places or even to go home. Joseph teaches us that the past can liberate us and lead us forward.

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