“The Bones of Joseph”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat B’shalach, opens with millions of Israelites, many of them former slaves, departing from Egypt. At this central moment there is a sudden shift in theme. Scripture, in Exodus 13:19, tells us: “Va’yee’kach Moshe et atz’moat Yosef ee’mo,” that Moses took the bones of Joseph with him, “kee hash’bay’ah hish’bee’ah et B’nay Yisrael lay’mor: pa’koad yif’koad Eh’lo’kim et’chem v’ha’ah’lee’tem et atz’mo’tai mee’zeh eet’chem,” for [Joseph] had made the children of Israel swear saying, “G-d will surely remember you, and you shall bring up my bones from here with you.”

One can just imagine Moses’s predicament! On nine previous occasions Pharaoh had rejected Moses’s plea, and refused to allow the Jews to leave–even for a three day journey in the wilderness. Gentle Moses, the former prince of Egypt who had learned to care for his human flocks by training as a shepherd in Midian, was forced to visit G-d’s harsh punishments upon the leaders and the people of Egypt. Reluctant Moses, who claimed from the very start that he was neither a leader nor a speaker, now finds himself in charge of upwards of two and a half million men, women and children, who need to be led out of Egypt. Since all of this takes place before Jethro, Moses’s father-in-law, helps him establish a judicial hierarchy to assist him with the administrative and legal responsibilities of Israel, Moses, at this trying time, is essentially alone.

Poor Moses must surely be overwhelmed with thousands of logistical details that need his “immediate” attention. And yet, scripture tells us that Moses diverts his attention from the people to attend to the bones of Joseph and take them with him for eventual burial in the Promised Land. Was there really no one else to attend to Joseph’s bones? What about Moses’s cousins, the Levites, who according to tradition were excused from serving as slaves? Couldn’t they care for the deceased Joseph?

It must be recalled, that Joseph did not merely request from his family to bring his bones out of Egypt. He made them take a sacred oath that they would fulfill his wish. That oath needed to be honored, and Moses felt compelled to do so.

Furthermore, even more than the oath, perhaps Moses felt particularly committed to attend to Joseph’s remains because it was Joseph who had bequeathed the legacy of hope to the Jewish people, to never lose faith that redemption from Egypt would eventually come. After all, it was Joseph, who with his last breath, said (Genesis 50:25): “Pa’kohd yif’kohd Eh’lo’kim et’chem, v’ha’ah’lee’tem et atz’mo’tai mee’zeh,” G-d will surely remember you, and you must bring my bones up out of here.

It was indeed Joseph’s spirit and commitment that kept the dream of ultimate freedom alive in the hearts of the downtrodden and suffering slaves. In fact, scripture records that it was Joseph’s original words (Genesis 50:24): “Vay’lokim pa’kohd yif’kohd et’chem,” G-d will surely remember you, that Moses uses with the people in order to legitimize his mission (Exodus 3:16). Those exact words were the words that sparked hope in the people (Exodus 4:31) and inspired them with the faith that they were to be redeemed. It was Joseph and his legacy of redemption that provided the link to the prophecy of redemption that convinced the Jewish people to believe in Moses and have faith in his mission.

The commentators find additional connections between the bones of Joseph and the mission of Moses. Several interpreters note that the words “atz’mot Yosef,” the bones of Joseph, may be read with a variant punctuation as, “atz’mut Yosef,” meaning the “essence” of Joseph. It was, they say, not the bones, but the essence of Joseph that assisted Moses in his mission.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Hager of Kosov (1768-1826, Chassidic leader, author of Ahavat Shalom) notes that, while Moses was a rather ethereal person, Joseph was essentially a material person. As scripture states (Genesis 42:6): “V’Yosef hoo ha’mash’beer,” Joseph distributed food to all. The rabbis consequently conclude that, in an attempt to be more balanced, Moses incorporated within himself the essence of Joseph so that he might influence the people both spiritually and materially.

A slight variant of Rabbi Menachem Mendel’s interpretation is that Moses incorporated within himself the kindness of Joseph that would serve as the guiding principle of his leadership. Just as Joseph responded to his brothers’ mistreatment with kindness, so Moses committed himself to exhibit the same type of patience with his flock, responding to their obstinate and provocative behavior with care and concern (Iturei Torah).

The Talmud (Sotah 13a), notes that while the rest of the people of Israel were busy looting Egypt of its wealth, Moses was concerned with evacuating the bones of Joseph. While it is true that the looting of Egypt was also a Divine command (Exodus 11:2), Moses’s actions were entirely altruistic, without any possible personal benefit to himself.

Another important lesson that emerges from Moses’s behavior was that he did not consider it beneath his dignity to personally exhume Joseph’s bones and to personally carry the bones up to the land of Canaan. While Moses would soon learn from his father-in-law, Jethro, the importance of delegating responsibility, there were certain tasks that he considered either too important or too sensitive to delegate. Moses, the hands-on leader, was not at all reluctant to “sully” his hands when the need arose.

Too often, we hear contemporary leaders complaining that they have too little time for the “real things” in life. Perhaps it is because they are too busy giving orders to hundreds, if not thousands, of others. The well-known aphorism, “We never stand so tall as when we stoop to help others,” is a message that should constantly resonate within us. It certainly reflects the message that we learn from our leader Moses, the most humble human being to walk on the face of the earth, and his total concern for the bones of Joseph.

May you be blessed.