This is it. Time to go.
The Exodus is actually happening. The plagues are over, the Pharaoh has relented. The Israelites are packed and ready, carrying everything they own on their backs.They have even stuffed Egyptian gold and silver into their bags, whatever they could grab.
And now they are beginning to stream out, bursting open blood-stained doors, heading for the sea. Everyone running – old men, mothers with little children, tribal leaders…
But in the midst of this torrent of bodies, all rushing out of Egypt, one man seems to be scrambling in the wrong direction. A closer look reveals this is not just any man, but their leader, Moses. Yet he is not, as we might expect, out leading the charge of the Exodus. Instead, he is busy, looking for something… looking… and then he finds it:
Now the Israelites went up armed out of the land of Egypt. And Moses took the bones of Joseph with him, for Joseph had them swear, saying, “God will surely redeem you, and then you should carry my bones up from here with you.” (Exod. 13:18-19)
וַחֲמֻשִׁים עָלוּ בְנֵי–יִשְׂרָאֵל, מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם. יט וַיִּקַּח מֹשֶׁה אֶת–עַצְמוֹת יוֹסֵף, עִמּוֹ: כִּי הַשְׁבֵּעַ הִשְׁבִּיעַ אֶת–בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, לֵאמֹר, פָּקֹד יִפְקֹד אֱלֹקים אֶתְכֶם, וְהַעֲלִיתֶם אֶת–עַצְמֹתַי מִזֶּה אִתְּכֶם.
It’s true – this is the last thing Joseph said before he died, at the very end of the Book of Genesis: Take my bones with you. (Gen. 50:25)
But why make special mention of the bones now? And why is it Moses, of all people, who goes and gets them? Doesn’t he have better things to do at this particular moment? Shouldn’t he be leading the people out of Egypt? Surely they can find someone else to do the bone-carrying.
Rashi, over in his commentary on the book of Proverbs (10:8), mentions this detail and sees it as a testament to Moses’ character:
Our Teacher Moses, while the rest of Israel was busy looting Egypt, was attending to sacred obligations – as it says, “and Moses took the bones of Joseph…” (Exod. 13)
משה רבינו שכל ישראל היו עוסקין בביזת מצרים והוא היה עוסק במצות שנאמר ויקח משה את עצמות יוסף וגו‘ (שמות יג)
Rashi is quoting from one of the most amazing rabbinic stories ever written, and we’re going to spend our time this week tracing through it. It appears in at least six collections of Midrash, with slight variations, but the version we’re going to quote appears in the Talmud (Sotah 13a). It starts off with these same praises of Moses, but the story is really more about how Moses found the bones to begin with. And the first part of that answer involves a mysterious old woman:
How did Moses know where Joseph was buried? They say that Serah bat Asher was the only one who remained from that generation, and Moses went to ask her, “Do you have any idea where Joseph is buried?”
ומנין היה יודע משה רבינו היכן יוסף קבור אמרו סרח בת אשר נשתיירה מאותו הדור הלך משה אצלה אמר לה כלום את יודעת היכן יוסף קבור
Serah bat Asher is surely one of the most fascinating figures in rabbinic literature. She first appears back in the book of Genesis, in the list of Jacob’s family members who went down to Egypt – the only granddaughter mentioned. But then, in the book of Numbers, there is a census taken of all those who escaped Egypt, and Serah appears again, in the midst of a long list of names, with a separate verse all to herself:
The name of Asher’s daughter was Serah. (Num. 26:46)
וְשֵׁם בַּת–אָשֵׁר, שָׂרַח.
That’s over two-hundred years later! So the rabbis do the math, and figure something supernatural is going on with this woman. Serah begins to take on the legend of an immortal. She never dies, and appears again and again in their stories at critical moments to deliver important messages. She was the one who first told Jacob that Joseph was still alive, singing the message to him gently, so that he wouldn’t have a heart-attack. She was the one who first confirmed that Moses’ prophecy was legitimate. She is even reported to have appeared to the rabbis themselves, over a thousand years later.
So the first thing we learn about the search for Joseph’s bones that Moses had to consult a wise elder. Now what did she tell him?
She said, “The Egyptians made a metal casket for him, and sunk it into the Nile, so that its waters would be blessed by him.”
אמרה לו ארון של מתכת עשו לו מצרים וקבעוהו בנילוס הנהר כדי שיתברכו מימיו
That sounds like bad news for Moses! The bones are encased in iron, at the bottom of the Nile. And there’s no time to spare. Moses will never get them out! So what did he do?
Moses went and stood on the bank of the Nile and shouted out, “Joseph! Joseph! The time has come about which God swore, “I will redeem you.” And so it is time to fulfill the oath you imposed on Israel. If you will show yourself, well and good! If not, we are hereby released from your oath.
הלך משה ועמד על שפת נילוס אמר לו יוסף יוסף הגיע העת שנשבע הקב“ה שאני גואל אתכם והגיעה השבועה שהשבעת את ישראל אם אתה מראה עצמך מוטב אם לאו הרי אנו מנוקין משבועתך
Imagine the silence of the water, flowing along, the absurdity of Moses’ declaration, echoing through the air. Far away, in the background, is the rumbling of a slave revolution underway. And here stands the leader of that revolution, all alone, speaking his desperate demands into thin air.
Moses, just go already! It’s hopeless! It’s okay, there’s no way to fulfill this dying wish, and it’s not that important anyway. There’s an entire nation that needs you now. Get out of here!
Still, he stands there. And then… a great rumbling…
And suddenly, Joseph’s casket shot up and floated to the top!
מיד צף ארונו של יוסף
And Moses grabbed it and ran. The oath would be fulfilled. Joseph was finally going to leave Egypt.
It’s an incredible tale, full of magic and suspense. High drama, worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster.
But still, we might ask: Why? What’s the big deal? Why does the Torah, and then the Talmud, go through all of this trouble to highlight the story of Joseph’s bones? What is so significant about them in the larger context of the Exodus story?
The Talmud has a kind of answer, just a bit further on:
All those years that Israel was in the desert, there were two arks – one with the dead body and one with the [tablets inscribed by the] Divine. They proceeded side by side. And passersby would ask, ‘What is in these things?’ And they would be told, ‘One has a dead body in it, and one has the Divine Presence hovering over it.’ And they would ask, ‘But is it right for the dead to proceed alongside the Divine Presence?!’ And they would be told, ‘This one, [Joseph], fulfilled everything written by this One – [God].”
וכל אותן שנים שהיו ישראל במדבר היו שני ארונות הללו אחד של מת ואחד של שכינה מהלכין זה עם זה והיו עוברין ושבין אומרים מה טיבן של שני ארונות הללו אמרו אחד של מת ואחד של שכינה וכי מה דרכו של מת להלך עם שכינה אמרו קיים זה כל מה שכתוב בזה
These aren’t just bones, the Talmud is saying. And Joseph isn’t just a dead body. Joseph led a life of righteousness which was the very embodiment of the Divine Will. So his bones are as sacred to us as the very Tablets of the Covenant.
But more than that, this second ark is a reminder that death is as much a part of this story as is life. The purpose of the Exodus is to release the forces of life – the liberation that will allow former slaves to live fully in the world as free people. But this freedom has not been achieved without death along the way. The death of our ancestors. The death of those slaves who never made it out. The death of the children drowned in the Nile.
So while we celebrate life, we honor death, and we never forget those who have come before us. They are as much a part of our story as we are.
This is what Moses was modeling for the Children of Israel. While they were preparing to leave, looking forward into the future, Moses was looking backward, into their past. It’s not that Moses was so busy with his own personal obsession that he was too distracted to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. This was his way of leading them. He showed the people not only where to go, but where they had been.
For there is no future that does not emerge out of the past. There are no children without parents, and no parents without grandparents. There is no life without death.
For all of Moses’ efforts, however, when Joseph’s bones finally make it into the ground, at the end of the Book of Joshua, Moses himself goes unmentioned:
The bones of Joseph, which the Israelites brought up from Egypt, were buried at Shechem, in the piece of ground that Jacob had purchased. (24:32)
וְאֶת–עַצְמוֹת יוֹסֵף אֲשֶׁר–הֶעֱלוּ בְנֵי–יִשְׂרָאֵל מִמִּצְרַיִם, קָבְרוּ בִשְׁכֶם, בְּחֶלְקַת הַשָּׂדֶה אֲשֶׁר קָנָה יַעֲקֹב
The Israelites brought them up?! What about Moses? He’s the one that brought them up. He’s the one that went to all the trouble to get them!
But then, Moses never made it into the Land of Israel. He died before he could bury the bones. So it was the Israelites who actually completed the fulfillment of Joseph’s oath. And the Talmud reflects on this transfer as follows:
When one person does something, but does not finish it, and another comes along and finishes it, that second person is described as having done it themselves.
כל העושה דבר ולא גמרו ובא אחר וגמרו מעלה עליו הכתוב על שגמרו כאילו עשאו
When Moses met his own death, the Children of Israel took the bones from him, and kept moving forward. And they buried those bones in land purchased by Jacob, Joseph’s father. Everyone played a part. Everyone carried their share of the journey.
It is worth noting here that the word for “bones” in Hebrew, atzamot (עצמות), is spelled the same as the word for “essence,” atzmut. And the words are related – getting to the “essence” of something is like getting “down to the bone.” So was it really bones Moses took out of Egypt? Or was it Joseph’s essence he passed along?
We took from Moses the essence of Joseph – which itself was infused with the essence of Jacob and Rachel, and the essence of Isaac and Rebecca, and the essence of Abraham and Sarah. And we took with us the essence of Moses as well. We carried all of them with us when we left. Inside of us. In our blood, in our bones.
We are all walking around with the bones of Joseph. One day, we too will hand them over.