Thursday, July 20th, 2017

The Bones of Yosef by Nathaniel Helfgot

January 27, 2010 by  
Filed under New Posts, Tanach

The Torah, in an apparent aside at the beginning of Parashat Beshallah (Ch. 13:19), informs us that as the Israelites were leaving Egypt, Moses recovered the bones of Joseph to fulfill the request/oath that Joseph had made the people swear to him long ago that when the redemption would come they would take his bones back to the Promised Land with them.

The midrashim on this short verse are quite expansive and have been examined in depth by academic scholars of midrash such as Yosef Heineman z”l, James Kugel, Avigdor Shinan and others.

I would like to add some reflections on the significance of this verse from a peshat perspective in terms of some of the grand arcs of the Exodus narrative. In addition to the explicit explanation given in the biblical text, there may also be at least four other ideas that are laying beneath the surface.

The entire narrative of the Israelite descent into Egypt begins, of course, with the descent of Joseph to Egypt, ve-Yoseif Hurad Mitzraymah (Ch. 39). Joseph’s descent into Egypt is prefaced by his original descent into a pit (and later in the narrative the dungeon in Egypt is called a pit as well). The descent into slavery continues with the new Pharoah of Egypt who does not “know of Joseph.” He, his nation, and their contribution are forgotten.  Thus, here in our parasha we close the circle. The “descent-yeridah” of Joseph is reversed and his bones- his person – is brought up, veha’alitem. The dead person who is often forgotten (see Kohelet and various Tehillim) here is pointedly remembered and engaged as a reversal of the initial movement of history. A version of this idea might also argue that there is an element of “repairing the damage”- the sin, that the brothers had done by creating the circumstances that brought Joseph down to Egypt. Now at the moment of redemption the people, represented by Moses, bring Joseph out of Egypt and sever the connection between Egypt and Israel that they had set into motion (see Daat Mikra on Exodus 13:19)

 The Bible in Parashat Bo informs us that there is no Egyptian house which did not suffer a loss on the night of the Exodus-ein bayit asher ein ba meit. Moreover, the Bible at the beginning of Parshat Mas’ei tells us that as the Jews were leaving Egypt, the Egyptians were fully immersed in burying their dead-u-mitzrayim mekabrim et meiteihem (Numbers 35). The Egyptians who had once symbolized vigor and power are brought low and are simply focused on burying their dead. In sharp contrast, the Israelites are leaving Egypt with their families intact.  In a pointed reversal, instead of burying their dead, they are removing one of their dead from the soil of Egypt, in a sense almost reviving him as part of the nation and the symbol of his life and promise.

As the Egyptians close in on the Israelite nation the people panic and turn on Moshe asking him sarcastically – hamivli ein kevarim be-mitzrayim? - you are bringing us to the desert to die. As the story unfolds, of course, it turns out that the desert is not a place of death for the Israelites but rather where they will emerge alive and well. It is Egypt and their forces that will die in the dry land of the sea bed, being engulfed by the raging waters.  The prior removal of the bones of Joseph acts in this context as an ironic statement that indeed ein kevarimn bemitrayim. For the Israelite people, Egypt is no longer a place to dwell and even the dead have no place in that land. The Israelite people will live and thrive, while the Egyptians that will find their fate in the bowels of the earth.

Many years ago, my good friend R. David Silber suggested that the taking of the bones of Joseph also acts as the symbolic fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham at the brit bein ha-betarim. God there had famously declared to Abraham, “ve-dor reve’ee yashuvu heinah-that the fourth generation would return here.”  The taking of the bones of Joseph and the deposit of those bones in the Land of Israel closes the circle of God’s covenantal promise that lies at the heart of the Exodus.

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