The article below is from Rabbi Riskin’s book Shemot: Defining a Nation, part of his Torah Lights series of commentaries on the weekly parsha, published by Maggid and available for purchase here.
Parshat Beshalach: Joseph, the Teacher of Jewish Return and Universalism
Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Riskin is the Founder and Rosh HaYeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone
“And Moses brought the bones of Joseph with him, since [Joseph] had adjured the children of Israel to take an oath; [Joseph] had said, ‘God will surely remember you; bring up my bones with you from this [place].’” [Exodus 13:19]
At the very opening of the Torah portion of Beshalach, just as we’ve reached the climax of the ten plagues and the Israelites have been sent forth out of their Egyptian bondage, we find a fascinating throwback to a former heroic personality from the Book of Genesis: Joseph.
Why interrupt the drama of the Exodus with the detail of concern over Joseph’s remains? From a certain narrative perspective, Joseph’s name even evokes a jarring note at this moment of Israel’s freedom. After all, Joseph may well be seen as the very antithesis of Moses: Joseph begins within the family of Jacob-Israel, and moves outside of it as he rises to great heights in Egypt, whereas Moses begins as a prince of Egypt and moves into the family of Israel when he smites the Egyptians. Joseph is the one who brings the children of Jacob into Egypt whereas Moses takes them out; Joseph gives all of his wisdom and energy to Egypt whereas Moses gives all of his wisdom and energy to the Israelites. It can even be argued that the very enslavement of the Israelites by the Egyptians was a punishment for Joseph’s having enslaved the Egyptians to Pharaoh as part of his economic policy (Genesis 47:19–23). So why bring up the remains of Joseph at this point in the story?
The fact is that Joseph is a most complex and amazing personality, who very much stands at the crossroads of and makes a vital connection between the Books of Genesis and Exodus. We have previously pointed out that the jealous enmity of the brothers towards Joseph was in no small way rooted in the grandiose ambition expressed in his dreams: sheaves of grain evoke Egyptian agriculture rather than Israeli shepherdry, and the bowing sun, moon and stars smack of cosmic domination. While yet in the Land of Israel, Joseph had apparently set his sights on the then superpower, Egypt – and the second dream suggests that Egypt is only a stepping stone for universal majesty.
But then, does not the Torah picture the Almighty as the creator and master of the entire world, and is it not Israel’s mission to be a kingdom of priest-teachers and a holy nation with the mandate of perfecting the world in the Kingship of the divine? And with his very last breaths, in the closing lines of the book of Genesis (Gen. 50:24–25), does not Joseph profess absolute faith in God’s eventual return of the Israelites to their homeland, at which time he makes his brothers swear that his remains will be taken “home” to Israel as well? The full picture of Joseph seems to depict a great-grandson of Abraham, who fully grasps the importance of the Land of Israel for his nation, but who also recognizes the eventual necessity of their being a source of blessing for “all the families of the earth” (Gen. 12:3), their mission of peace not just for the family but for the world.
The Midrash describes a fascinating scene:
“At the exact time when all of the Jews were occupied in gathering the booty of Egypt, Moses was occupied in gathering the bones of Joseph. Who informed Moses as to where Joseph was buried? Serah, the daughter of Asher, who was still living in that generation [of the Exodus]. She went and told Moses that Joseph had been buried in the River Nile. Moses then stood at the foot of the Nile River and cried out: ‘Joseph, Joseph, the time of redemption has come, but the Divine Presence is holding it back. If you will show yourself, good. If not, I shall be freed of the oath which you made me swear.’ Immediately the coffin of Joseph rose to the surface of the Nile River…”
Hence, when the Israelites went forth from Egypt, two casks [aronot] accompanied them for forty years in the desert: the cask of the life of all worlds [the divine Torah which they had received as family tradition until that time] and the cask [casket] of Joseph. The nations of the world would ask, “What is the nature of these two casks? Is it necessary for the cask of the dead to go together with the cask of eternal life?” But in truth the one who is buried in this [cask] fulfilled whatever is written in that (cask). [Tanchuma, Beshalach, 2]
Generally this midrash is understood to be saying that Joseph fulfilled the moral commandments already expressed in the Torah from the story of creation up until and including the Exodus. After all, Joseph was moral and upright, even to the extent of rebuffing the enticements of the beautiful “Mrs. Potiphar,” thereby earning the appellation of “the righteous.” However, I would suggest an alternate interpretation: The Torah of the book of Exodus encased in one cask fulfilled the dreams, expectations and prophecies of Joseph buried in the other cask. Joseph foresaw an eventual exodus from Egypt and return to Israel. Joseph also foresaw a cosmic obeisance of the sun, moon and stars to the universal God of justice and peace whom he represented. This too was fulfilled when the world was paralyzed by the force of the plagues, when the nations trembled at the destruction of Egypt and victory of the Israelites when the Reed Sea split apart:
“Nations heard and shuddered; terror gripped the inhabitants of Philistia. Edom’s chiefs then panicked, Moab’s heroes were seized with trembling, Canaan’s residents melted away…God will reign supreme forever and ever.” [Exodus 15:14–15, 18]
Yes, at the supreme triumphant moment of the Exodus, Moses stops to fulfil a vow and take the bones of Joseph, the essence of Joseph (the Hebrew word “etzem” translates both as “bone” and as “essence”) out of Egypt and into Israel with the Israelites. Moses wanted the faith of Joseph, the universality of Joseph, the majesty of Joseph, the grandeur of Joseph, to accompany the Israelites throughout their sojourn in the desert. After all, the casket of Joseph imparted a crucial lesson: God’s rule of justice, compassion and peace must capture the entire world, all despots must be seized with fear and trembling, and all human beings must be free. May Joseph’s eternal gravesite in Shechem be salvaged and re-sanctified as a beacon to Jewish faith in a world redeemed.