Whose Bones Are These? Our Sacred Oath to Preserve Memory (A Reprise for Pesach)

I wrote the following d’var Torah for Parashat Beshalach in January, 2021, but the message here is most apropos to Pesach and to the observance of yizkor, the memorial service we pray as a community on Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot as well as Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Pesach is all about remembering our national story. As any journalist or educator will tell you, we learn history best when we tell the stories of individuals. That is why the story of Pesach has the names of so many rabbis and even the four children. They help us personalize our connection to our larger story as a nation. Additionally, when we remember our beloveds who are no longer with us during yizkor, we recall their stories and we give their lives meaning when we pass those stories onto our children.

When I think of Moses and the Israelites carrying Joseph’s bones back to Israel, I imagine the children among them asking their parents, “Whose bones are these?” And I imagine the eyes of the parents growing wide as they regale their children with the story of Joseph as we’ve learned it from the Book of Genesis.

On this, the 7th night of Pesach, on a Shabbat when my congregation will be praying the yizkor prayers, I hope we can take the time not only this Shabbat but at all times to share the stories of our people and our families with our children. When we do that, you might say that “Joseph’s” bones come back to life.

Parashat Beshalach 5781 / פרשת בְּשַׁלַּח
Exodus 13:17-17:16

I recently partook in a conversation about how best to acknowledge yahrzeits, the anniversaries of individuals’ deaths, in our bi-monthly newsletter and whether to include in our acknowledgements the names of people who passed away decades ago and who no longer have familial ties in the congregation. At issue ostensibly was the practicality of perpetually printing an ever-expanding list of names within limited space, but beneath the surface was the question of how to honor and preserve the memory of all who came before us. In essence, we were dealing with one of the lessons of this week’s Torah portion: we are commanded to go to great lengths to sustain our People’s collective memory.

Let me lay out the tension we were dealing with in the aforementioned conversation. In our bi-monthly newsletter, we have a finite among of space for articles, program announcements, listings of donations, simchas (joyous milestones), advertisements and other content. Should we then be listing all the yahrzeits for the months covered in the newsletter extending back to the congregation’s founding over 100 years ago? Were we to do so, we could imagine the list growing so long it would deprive us of space in the newsletter to notify the living of what is happening in the community in our own day. On the other hand, don’t we have an obligation to perpetuate the memory of individuals who no longer have relatives to say kaddish for them and who also may have made significant contributions to the community during their lives? Before I reveal the resolution to this dilemma, consider the case presented in Parashat Beshalach, from chapter 13 of the Book of Exodus.

It is clear that even our biblical forebears wrestled with how to perpetuate the memory of our ancestors. At the time the Israelites departed Egypt, “Moses took with him the bones of Joseph, who had exacted an oath from the children of Israel, saying ‘God will be sure to take notice of you: then you shall carry up my bones from here with you’” (Ex. 13:19). Not knowing where Joseph was buried – after all, it had been around 400 years since he died! – Joseph consulted with Serach, the daughter of Jacob’s son Asher and the only person alive of Joseph’s generation. (Yes, Serach was VERY old, but considering that one tradition has her living to 1000 years, she hadn’t yet hit mid-life by the time Moses got in touch with her!) Serach revealed that Pharaoh, knowing that the Israelites would not leave Egypt without honoring the oath that the Children of Israel had made with Joseph, had hidden Joseph’s coffin beneath the Nile. And so Moses went to the bank of the Nile and called out to Joseph, whereupon Joseph’s metal coffin rose to the surface.

Moses took great pains to recover Joseph’s remains at a time when the rest of Israel was occupied with “requesting” the valuables of Egypt. Ibn Ezra, a medieval commentator, observes that rather than give in to the temptation to enrich himself before being freed from Egypt, Moses “took care to fulfill the oath so that no guilt should befall upon Israel.” Despite Moses’ meritorious act, it would be the generation that entered the land without Moses that eventually claimed credit for giving Joseph a proper burial. Nonetheless, we must credit Moses with enabling the future Children of Israel to remain faithful to Joseph’s wishes.

I imagine it was a bit strange for the Israelites to schlep Joseph’s bones through the wilderness for 40 years. Apart from the ancient Serach, no one knew Joseph personally. One wonders how the people remembered Joseph after being enslaved in Egypt for 400 years. Had Joseph achieved legendary status or had the hardship of their oppression caused the Israelites to bury the memory of Joseph into their subconscious as Pharaoh had buried Joseph beneath the Nile? “Whose bones are these?” I can hear the children asking as their fathers took turns carrying them. And then the follow-up question: “Why bother?”

Why bother carrying Joseph bones up from Egypt? Given the hardships and the heavy lifting involved in their desert sojourn, we might have forgiven the Israelites for lightening their load at some point. Moses had his hands so full throughout the trek that he might never have noticed had someone “accidentally” left the bones on the wrong side of the Sea of Reeds. But that is not what happened. Indeed, the Israelites entered Eretz Yisrael with Joseph’s bones, and they buried him in the vicinity of the Shechem. (One can visit Joseph’s Tomb on the outskirts of Nablus to this day.)

The Children of Israel made an oath to remember Joseph. Taking his bones to the Holy Land and burying him there was a commitment they made not only with Joseph but with God. In the Torah, oaths by their very nature are made with God and are inviolable. Thus, the promise to Joseph was a sacred commitment preserved over many generations until, hundreds of years later, it could be fulfilled. Leaving Joseph’s bones behind was out of the question even for the generations who knew him, perhaps, in story only.

We are the Children of Israel who carry on the legacy exemplified by Moses and the generations of the wandering. Our oath is not with Joseph but with all those who came before us. Anyone who has volunteered to maintain a Jewish cemetery has taken an active part in honoring that oath. Anyone who has gazed at a memorial wall in a synagogue has taken an active part in honoring that oath. Anyone who has polished a plaque dedicating a room or a ritual object to someone now known by name only has taken an active part in honoring that oath. We all can take an active part in honoring the memory of those unknown souls who came before us by simply being mindful of our continued existence as a Jewish People. On a more mundane level, if it were not for those souls, we would have no synagogue today in which to mount those memorial or dedicatory plaques.

Must we commit to publishing in our newsletters all the names of the deceased members of our community as well as the deceased family members of congregants for all time? No. In the case at hand, pragmatism prevailed, and we decided to continue to include names of those who died years ago only while they have relatives in our congregation to observe their yahrzeits. This is consistent with the Torah’s own pragmatism regarding Joseph. It was not Joseph’s whole body that Moses and the Israelite’s took out of Egypt, just his bones. The Israelites did not haul a giant sarcophagus across the wilderness with Joseph’s embalmed body for all those years, but rather something much more modest and portable, like an ark resembling the one in which the Tablets of the Covenant were preserved. The Torah seems to suggest that it is not unreasonable to set limits on how we preserve the memory of our ancestors. Opting to place a limit on the list of yahrzeits in our newsletter is one such reasonable limit.

At the end of the day, our discussion was not about preserving our communal memory or not. We could make the decision to hold the line on printing yahrzeits because we know we have other ways to perpetuate the memory of the unknown, though not forgotten, souls who paved the way forward for us. One of those ways is simply to be mindful that we have a debt of gratitude to pay to earlier generations – to the Josephs who came before us – and never to take our existence for granted. If we can do that, we, too, will have fulfilled our oath.