Updated: Mar 9, 2020
Amid all the drama of the Exodus, one small verse about how Joseph’s remains were transported out of Egypt opens up an entire world of meaning. It is a reminder of the importance of mitzvot; of leading by example; of integrity and truth; of the primacy of spirit over matter; of the attainability of Torah; and finally, of the Divinely directed arc of our lives and of all existence.
What's the significance of moving Joseph's remains?
This week’s parsha, Beshalach, begins with high drama. The Jewish people are leaving Egypt in their millions and are heading towards the Sea of Reeds chased by the Egyptian army. The scene is set for the incredible miracle of the splitting of the sea, with the Jewish people going through on dry land, while the Egyptian army is drowned in the sea as they try to follow.
But in the middle of all of this drama is a seemingly small detail that, it turns out, actually has profound significance for our lives.
The verse says:
“Moses took Joseph’s bones with him, because he (Joseph) had made the children of Israel swear, saying, ‘G-d will surely remember you, and you will bring up my bones from here with you’.”
Joseph had made the Jewish people promise that when G-d remembered them and took them out of the land of Egypt, they would re-bury him in the land of Israel. There are a number of important life lessons that we can learn from this verse.
The purpose of life
The Talmud (Sotah…) points out that it was Moses himself who went to find the body of Yosef as the Jewish people prepared to depart Egypt. While the people gathered up the Egyptians’ gold and silver – reparations for all of the years of slave labour, as promised by G-d – Moses busied himself with the task of locating Joseph’s remains so that he could fulfil the sacred promise the Jewish people had made to Joseph. The Talmud cites this as an illustration of the preciousness of a mitzvah to Moses.
The Kli Yakar, a 16th century commentator from Prague, analyses the verse: “Moses took Joseph’s bones with him”, drawing attention to the seemingly superfluous “with him” – an allusion to the fact that Moses took Joseph’s remains with him wherever he would go, through this life and into the next. Gold and silver you leave behind in this world; mitzvot accompany you through eternity. As the mishna in Pirkei Avot says: “A single moment of repentance and good deeds in this world is greater than all of the World to Come, and a single moment of bliss in the World to Come is greater than all of this world.”
What is the purpose of life? The Talmud says Moses epitomised King Solomon’s words in Proverbs: “The wise of heart will seize mitzvot.” It requires real wisdom and insight to realise that G-d put us on earth to fulfil his commandments, that this is the time to carry out his Divine will. We need to use our time on this earth to accumulate as many mitzvot as possible, because they are all we will take with us when we leave it.
You can do great things with money. You can raise a family, give your children a good Jewish education, help the poor, support Torah learning. But, ultimately, money is just a means to an end. It’s the “wise of heart” who recognises this, who understand that life is about accumulating mitzvot.
The second lesson this verse teaches us is leadership. Moses was the leader of the Jewish people. He supervised the entire liberation of the Jewish people. Can you imagine being responsible for three million Jews as they are leaving Egypt and journeying out into the desert? Yet even with all of his responsibilities, he didn’t outsource this great mitzvah of finding Joseph’s coffin. He did it himself.
We know that when Pharaoh told the people to leave Egypt after the final plague – the death of the first born – it was a mad rush. And even in that pandemonium, it was Moses, the leader of the Jewish people, who had the presence of mind to locate the body of Joseph. This is the most powerful leadership lesson imaginable. It’s not enough to say mitzvot are important; it’s what we do – the example we set – that truly defines great leadership. Our actions speak far more eloquently than any words or sermons. Indeed, Moses’ most eloquent sermon was at that moment when he put aside his own personal needs, all of his other responsibilities even, to perform this important mitzvah. That is what real leadership is about. That is how you inspire people to live elevated lives and seek a higher purpose.
Your word is your bond
The third lesson we learn from this verse is integrity. The verse says that Moses took Joseph’s bones because of the oath Joseph had made the Jewish people take. The Sforno explains that as the leader of the Jewish people, Moses took it on himself to discharge that oath. This is what integrity is about – keeping your word. In the heat of the moment, at this seminal point in Jewish history as the Jewish people were being formed as a nation, Moses realised that integrity had to form the basis of our national identity.
Our sages pinpoint another example of Moses’ unwavering integrity. When G-d first asked him to lead the Jewish people out of Egypt, Moses insisted he couldn’t accept the position before conferring with his father-in-law, Yitro, whom he’d promised never to leave. He first had to be relieved from that promise, because he realised you can’t do great things in this world if they are founded on a lack of integrity. On the contrary, decency and honesty are the very building blocks of greatness.
Why is Joseph’s body mentioned at this particular point in the narrative? A few verses later, the Jewish people arrive at the Sea of Reeds. With the Egyptian army behind them and the sea in front of them, they are trapped. It’s at this point that a great miracle happens – the splitting of the sea. According to the Midrash, this miracle occurred in Joseph’s merit. We say in Psalms “…and the sea saw and fled”. What exactly did it see? According to the Midrash, it saw Joseph’s remains. The Torah describes how, when Potiphar’s wife was trying to seduce Joseph into committing adultery, “he fled and went outside”. The Torah uses the same word, vayanos (“and he fled”) that appears in Psalms in relation to the Sea of Reeds, thereby hinting that the miraculous splitting of the sea occurred in Joseph’s merit.
What exactly is the connection between these two episodes? The Maharal of Prague explains that just like the splitting of the sea was an overturning of the laws of nature, so too was Joseph’s supreme act of restraint in warding off the advances of Potiphar’s wife. He was a 17-year-old boy, far away from home. Nobody knew him. But he knew that G-d would hold him accountable for it. He knew the definition of right and wrong, and he did the right thing and ran away, even though it cost him his liberty, because Potiphar’s wife turned on Joseph, falsely accusing him of rape, and he ended up in the dungeons of Egypt.
Joseph had many challenges to his faith. Working in the house of Potiphar, languishing in the dungeons, and even – perhaps especially – being viceroy of Egypt. Yet throughout all of these challenging phases of his life, he remained loyal – to the extent that our sages describe him as Yosef HaTazaddik – “Joseph the righteous”. His life was a living reminder that the physical world is subservient to the spiritual world. That the neshama, the soul, is much stronger than the body if we want it to be. Joseph’s message was that if we have the will, we can do the mitzvot and live with integrity. We can split our own seas.
Within our grasp
We are taught that throughout the years in the desert, Joseph’s coffin had pride of place. It was carried out in the front of the people, together with the Holy Ark. Interestingly, both the Ark and the coffin are called Aron in Hebrew. What is the significance of the two being carried side by side? The Midrash explains: “The one who is in this aron (Joseph) fulfilled that which was in the other aron (the Ten Commandments representing the Torah).” The Midrash goes on to relate that Joseph lived a life of Torah and mitzvot, even before the Torah was given.
Rav Zalman Sorotzkin says the underlying message here is that the Torah is “doable”. This Divine document, the blueprint of creation, the very Word of G-d, emanating from a world of perfection, is nevertheless accessible to us all. Like Joseph, we are all able to live in accordance with it.
There is a remarkable passage in the Talmud relating how when Moses comes up to heaven to receive the Torah from G-d, the angels vehemently protest: “You have kept concealed this precious treasure before You created the world and now You want to give it away to a creature of flesh and blood?” After G-d tells Moses to answer the angels, Moses proceeds to list the Ten Commandments: “I am the L-rd your G-d Who took you out of Egypt” – “Have you been enslaved in Egypt?” Moses asks the angels: “Honour your father and your mother” – “Do you have parents?”; “Don’t murder”; “Don’t steal”; “Don’t commit adultery” – “Have you passion or jealousy or greed, or any evil inclination?” In so doing, Moses clearly demonstrated that the Torah was intended for human beings. Or, put another way, that human beings were created in order to fulfil the Torah. So we should never think that the Torah is beyond us. It’s within our grasp, and Joseph, whose coffin travelled alongside the Holy Ark, was living proof of that.
G-d’s master plan
Joseph’s coffin also represents the power of complete trust in Hashem – a recognition that G-d is in control of the world, and that He has a master plan in which every person – indeed, every created being – plays a role. Joseph had a difficult life: at the age of 17, his brothers turned on him and sold him into slavery. He would not see any of his family for more than 20 years. He then endured the dungeons of Egypt, and all kinds of trials and tribulations. At some point, he must have wondered: “Why is G-d doing this to me?” But eventually, the big picture comes into view – he was sent to Egypt by G-d, where he would become viceroy and save the country from famine, and in so doing, save his family who were able to find refuge there.
But there’s another layer here. G-d’s master plan wasn’t just to save Jacob’s family, but to find a way of bringing the family – at that time, the entire Jewish people – down to Egypt. This, in turn, would set in motion the series of events that would lead to the birth of the Jewish nation – from the slavery, to the miracles of the liberation, to the Exodus from Egypt and journey to Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, culminating in our entering the land of Israel.
G-d’s plan was not a plan of a few years or even decades. It was a plan that unfolded over centuries, a plan that was sparked when Joseph was sold into slavery. Interestingly, we know that shortly after Joshua leads the Jewish people into the land of Israel, Joseph is buried in Shechem. Rashi comments that he was buried in Shechem because this was where he was captured by his brothers and then sold into slavery. So the whole story comes full circle, the great master plan revealed in all its majesty.
Our perceptions are limited. We don’t see the full picture. We don’t understand G-d’s master plan. G-d doesn’t work in years or decades; He works in centuries and millennia. But the presence of Joseph’s coffin among the people was a constant reminder that G-d looks after us always. Sometimes we are up, and sometimes we are down. Sometimes we face intense difficulties and challenges, and sometimes we experience ease. But no matter what happens in our lives, we know He has a master plan – and we are a part of it.
Amid all the drama of the Exodus from Egypt, this little verse about Joseph’s bones opens up an entire world of meaning. It is a reminder of the importance of mitzvot; of leading by example; of integrity and truth; of the primacy of spirit over matter; of the attainability of Torah; and finally, of the Divinely directed arc of our lives and of all existence.