Vayehi: On carrying bones and baggage of the past

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.


Genesis 47:28-50:26

I Kings 2:1-12

This week's Torah portion, Vayehi, which concludes the narratives of the Book of Genesis, portends enslavement and redemption, central themes of the Book of Exodus. In this passage, Joseph and his retinue journeyed from Egypt to Canaan to fulfill Jacob's wish that Joseph bury his father in the Tomb of Machpelah in Canaan, along with Abraham, Sarah, Isaac and Leah.

After fulfilling this promise, the progeny of Jacob returned to their adopted land and comfortable Egyptian lives and homes. Later, Joseph makes the same request of his children: "I am about to die. God will surely take notice of you and bring you up from this land to the land which He promised on oath to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. So Joseph made the sons of Israel swear, saying, `When God has taken notice of you, you shall carry up my bones from here.' Joseph died at the age of one hundred and ten years; and he was embalmed and placed in a coffin in Egypt" (Genesis 50:24-26).

The Book of Exodus propels the reader forward some 400 years to the preparation for the departure from Egypt. Of the Exodus and the promise, the text reads: "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'" (Exodus 13:19).

Centuries later, rabbis found a lack of drama and ceremony in this scant biblical account. Consequently, they wrote a Midrash — their speculation of what may have occurred as Moses and the Israelites feverishly planned their hurried departure from Egypt. At the very moment that the Israelites were busy stuffing their possessions into sacks and containers, they imagined Moses attempting to fulfill the promise made to Joseph by frantically searching for Joseph's remains. After a hurried search, Moses learned that the Egyptians hid the remains of Joseph in the Nile River — not only to allow the body of this revered leader to consecrate its waters, but more importantly, to prevent the Israelites from leaving Egypt because of the promise made to Joseph.

Learning of the story of Joseph's burial in the Nile, Moses raced to its shores and called, "Joseph, Joseph, the time has come in which God swore to redeem Israel, as has the time of the fulfillment of the oath you had Israel swear to you. Israel is waiting for you." With those words Joseph's coffin bobbed up to the surface; Moses retrieved it and took it with him on all his desert wanderings until it could be delivered to the Promised Land (Deuteronomy Rabbah 11:7; Talmud, Sotah 13b).

Thus, while the Israelites wandered through the desert they carried two boxes: One contained the tablets of the Law and the other contained the bones of Joseph. This Midrash contains a rich metaphor.

This story brings to mind the oft-heard comment about carrying "excess baggage." Typically this phrase refers to the burdens of past experiences which people carry with them. Individuals bear the weight of their calamities, mishaps, ordeals and hardships, no matter where they go or with whom they travel. But those who carry excess baggage are never able to get past those unhappy events. However, Moses' search for the bones of Joseph had a positive overtone. By carrying around the bones of Joseph, he hoped to draw closer to his powerful progenitor.

Most individuals need not search for the bones of their ancestors as Moses did; they are ever present within them, fused to their own bones. For some, the weight of ancestors' bones creates an inner tension because the bones are frequently carried as an unwanted burden. For others, they may be welcomed as a source of comfort and strength.

In ancient Israel, people were identified by name as the son or daughter of their parents. To this day, a Jewish child's Hebrew name still includes ben or bat, the son or daughter of so-and-so, thereby linking the child to a cherished chain of family members. Carrying those names is like carrying the bones of Joseph; they empower and strengthen us, but they can also overwhelm us. The bones of our ancestors that we carry around in our pockets or in our hearts should not be a source of guilt or recrimination, but rather a source of uplift and example. That is the blessing of how the dead can serve the living.