We recall that following the Jewish People’s departure from Egypt, they found themselves in a serious bind, entrapped by towering mountains to the side, their oncoming Egyptian captors to the rear, and the sea up ahead. God tells the people to enter the sea, which splits and becomes dry land as hundreds of thousands of Jews pass through, and then, the same sea drowns the Egyptian chariots and horsemen who were on the Israelites’ tails. This miracle, the Splitting of the Reed Sea, is what we commemorate each year on the seventh day of Passover.
Prior to this moment, however, the Torah relates a seemingly marginal event, but one that can and should provoke deeper thought. The nation has left Egypt and sets out on its desert journey, but it seems that only a fraction (a fifth, according to our rabbis) of the nation had agreed to depart. God decides to take the nation on a roundabout journey, fearing that it could not withstand another war, in which case it would opt to return to Egypt.
Meanwhile, the nation is protected by a pillar of clouds at the rear and a pillar of fire at the front as it treads on. After shaking off the initial shock, Pharaoh begins to chase after the people of Israel, and on the night of the Jews’ departure, in the thick of pandemonium that ensued for both Jew and Egyptian, Moses ventures out to look for Joseph’s grave, and takes Joseph’s bones (since Joseph had made his brothers swear that they would do so.) Why did the Torah find it so important to relate this event?
If Joseph’s brothers had promised to bury him in the Land of Israel, this obviously needed to be done, but we can also presume that they did many other things that the Torah did not mention. The bones of the rest of the brothers may also have been brought to the Land of Israel, but the Torah makes no mention of any such thing, so why does the Torah find it so important to mention this particular event?
Moreover, if, for whatever reason, the story of the removal of Joseph’s bones could not be omitted, would it not have been more appropriate to include it within the verses describing the exodus from Egypt, not later, after the Jews had already departed?
Some say that the Torah intends to reassert Moses’ leadership. While the rest of the nation was busy borrowing gold and silver vessels from the Egyptians, as they had been commanded to do, Moses was the one who went out to look for Joseph’s grave. Yet if this is truly the intent of the verse, it would have been better to discuss the event just after the story of the Jews borrowing gold and silver vessels from the Egyptians, and not here, in the description of Pharaoh’s pursuit of the Jews.
One nineteenth-century rabbi, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, expressed an intriguing idea about this passage. He wrote that the main purpose of the story was to criticize the Jewish people. The nation had just witnessed so many miracles, but is still afraid to set out on its journey. Only a fifth leave, and even so, they need to meander about in the desert because they fear war.
Just then, Moses obtains Joseph’s bones, the person who, several centuries earlier, had believed that redemption would come to the Jews, the one who exclaimed, “God shall surely remember you”. He is someone worthy of being a role model that can teach us about faith and the belief that our way is just, even if we must proceed down a winding and difficult path.
We can extend this line of thought as follows: the exodus from Egypt and our redemption can be achieved in two ways. These can be seen as military or political events with no past heritage to draw upon, and lacking any vision for the future – merely political conditions that happen to coalesce into an opportunity allowing the people to escape Egypt, an opportunity that is not ignored.
Another interpretation is that it is part of the fulfillment of a vision that Joseph had several centuries earlier. This was not some isolated event, detached from any broader historical context. It was important for Moses to state that he is not taking the Jews out of Egypt because he is a strong and charismatic leader operating against a cruel oppressor (though this is true).
Rather, he wants to continue implementing Joseph’s vision, which is why the Torah emphasizes that the nation took Joseph’s bones along. The people had once followed Joseph down to Egypt, and now, they were taking Joseph’s bones along as they returned home to Israel.
I associate this event with the bringing of Herzl’s bones to Israel. Herzl had foreseen the establishment of the State of Israel, and, decades after his death, had finally been brought home. This might be seen as technical and devoid of any real meaning, but a nation that wants to show itself and future generations that it is part of a glorious vision, intrinsically linked with both past and future, takes the bones of its visionaries everywhere it treads. It sees these visions as part of the message that it transmits to future generations.
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