Parashat Beshalach 01.19.19

D’var Torah: Those Holy Bones

Rabbi Mordechai Silverstein, Conservative Yeshiva Faculty

 As you might recall, Yosef, on his deathbed, charged his brothers with the responsibility for bringing his bones up with them when the children of Israel finally left Egypt. But generations after Yosef’s death, when the time came to get the bones and go, how were the children of Israel to find them? 

According to the Mechilta de Rabbi Ishmael, a midrash from the period of the Mishnah, nobody knew where Yosef was buried, except for one elderly woman, Serah bat Asher, who had miraculously survived from the time of Yosef. She told Moshe that Yosef’s bones were to be found at the bottom of the Nile River, where they had been hidden by the Egyptians. The Egyptians, says the midrash, knew about the deathbed promise made to Yosef. So they cleverly figured that if the children of Israel were unable to find the bones, they would never be able to leave Egypt.

So how did the children of Israel retrieve Yosef’s bones from the bottom of a vast and deep river? Moshe approached the Nile and called out: “Yosef son of Yaakov, the time of God’s promise to redeem His people has come. Yosef’s coffin rose to the surface of the Nile and Moshe took it. [After ‘Moshe received the Torah at Sinai], the children of Israel carried Yosef’s coffin alongside the Ark of the Covenant containing the Ten Commandments. When people would ask the Israelites: What is in those two chests?’ the Israelites would respond: “One contains the words of the revelation from God and the other is a coffin with a body in it.’ The nations, astounded that a corpse would be carried alongside the ark containing the Ten Commandments, responded: “What is so special about the one in that coffin that it is being carried next to God’s word?’ The Israelites answered: ‘The one in that coffin fulfilled in his life that which is written on God’s revealed tablets.’ (adapted from Mechilta de Rabbi Ishmael Beshalah, Horowitz – Rabin ed. pp. 78-80). This midrash goes on to describe how Yosef, who is Yaakov’s son, observed not only each of the Ten Commandments but also a number of the other commandments in the Torah. 

While this story is obviously historically fanciful and anachronistic, it warrants our attention because of its profound message. Yosef, according to this midrash, lived his life fulfilling the words of the Torah. His life was spent both standing up for his beliefs and thoughtfully carrying out the standards of his tradition with integrity. His faith was not simply lip service. He not only talked the talk. He walked the walk. He was a living, walking, talking Torah scroll. On account of his deep commitment, he merited after his death, to lead the children of Israel on their journey out of Egypt, right alongside the Ark of the Covenant.

This midrash, I think, is communicating on two levels. On the most basic level, it is saying that a person who abides by God’s Torah has the same sanctity as the Torah itself. They contain and transmit God’s word as much as any tablet or scroll. But on a deeper level, the midrash is also hinting at an equivalency between a dead body and a tablet or scroll. Our bodies are but dust and ashes. A Torah is but ink and animal hide. But when the source of holiness touches us – breathing life into us and giving us a living Torah – inanimate objects like stone, parchment, bone, sinew acquire a holiness that persists and must be honored.