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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

The Bones we Carry

by Rabbi Eliezer Lawrence (Posted on February 2, 2023)
Topics: Beshalach, Sefer Shemot, Torah

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I walk through the world with the bones of my ancestors. I carry in my bones the stories—the life, the love, the death, the values of those who came before—so many of whom I never met.

When we have a relationship with ancestry, we begin to encounter the expansiveness of History, of God, and to realize that we are but a character in a larger intergenerational story. While we may be the protagonist of our personal chapter, we also have a role in supporting the larger arc.

Yosef HaTzadik was always aware of the great story of which he was a part. When Potiphar’s wife attempts impropriety, he responds “וְאֵ֨יךְ אֶֽעֱשֶׂ֜ה הָרָעָ֤ה הַגְּדֹלָה֙ הַזֹּ֔את וְחָטָ֖אתִי לֵֽאלֹקִֽים—How could I do this wicked thing and sin before God?” (Gen. 39:9). When imprisoned, he solves the dreams of his prisoner counterparts and declares “הֲל֤וֹא לֵֽאלֹקִים֙ פִּתְרֹנִ֔ים—Surely God can interpret” (Gen. 40:8). And when he has the chance to rise to power through Pharaoh, we are reminded, “אֵ֣ת אֲשֶׁ֧ר הָאֱלֹקִ֛ים עֹשֶׂ֖ה הִגִּ֥יד לְפַרְעֹֽה—Pharaoh has been told what God is going to do” (Gen. 41:25). In each of these deeply consequential turning points, Yosef brings the fact that he is part of a larger divine story into the conversation.

While it is true that Yosef acted towards his brothers in a punitive fashion, temporarily losing sight of his place in the story, he ultimately returns to the truth.

“וַיֹּ֗אמֶר אֲנִי֙ יוֹסֵ֣ף אֲחִיכֶ֔ם אֲשֶׁר־מְכַרְתֶּ֥ם אֹתִ֖י מִצְרָֽיְמָה׃ וְעַתָּ֣ה ׀ אַל־תֵּעָ֣צְב֗וּ וְאַל־יִ֙חַר֙ בְּעֵ֣ינֵיכֶ֔ם כִּֽי־מְכַרְתֶּ֥ם אֹתִ֖י הֵ֑נָּה כִּ֣י לְמִֽחְיָ֔ה שְׁלָחַ֥נִי אֱלֹקִ֖ים לִפְנֵיכֶֽם” 

“And he said, ‘I am your brother Yosef, he whom you sold into Egypt. Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you’” (Gen. 45:4).

In parashat Vayechi, Yaakov implores his sons to bury him in Canaan, and it is Yosef HaTzadik who takes the mantle. When Yosef lies on his deathbed, he reminds his brothers that they are but players in a larger narrative that will end in redemption. The path to that redemption is to hold in our consciousness our intergenerational connectivity and reciprocal impact. “וַיַּשְׁבַּ֣ע יוֹסֵ֔ף אֶת־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל לֵאמֹ֑ר פָּקֹ֨ד יִפְקֹ֤ד אֱלֹקִים֙ אֶתְכֶ֔ם וְהַעֲלִתֶ֥ם אֶת־עַצְמֹתַ֖י מִזֶּֽה—So Yosef made the sons of Israel swear, saying, ‘When God has taken notice of you, you shall carry up my bones from here’” (Gen. 50:25).

But as generations pass, it is not always easy to hold on to those stories. Masechet Sotah tells us that by the time Bnei Yisrael were ready to leave Mitzrayim, in their experience of slavery and time-boundedness, they had lost the location of Yosef’s remains. But Serach bat Asher had not forgotten the obligation of her forefathers, and preserved the location of his interment to share with Moshe (Sotah 13a).

Bnei Yisrael would have to carry the coffin for as long as they were traveling— and that is not an easy task. Some might see intergenerational history and the obligations that emanate forth as burdensome, but in fact, they are ripe with blessing. 

“וַיִּקַּ֥ח מֹשֶׁ֛ה אֶת־עַצְמ֥וֹת יוֹסֵ֖ף עִמּ֑וֹ—And Moshe took with him the bones of Yosef” (Ex. 13:19). Moshe, on behalf of the Jewish people, brought the intergenerational conciseness forward. It was through the bones of Yosef, according to the Midrash, that the sea was split (Breishit Rabbah 87). Throughout the 40 years in the desert, Bnei Yisrael continued to carry the bones of their ancestor, the yoke of their heritage and the privilege of the redemptive promise. In sefer Yehoshua, at the time the people entered the Land and were establishing dominion, the presence of God in their collective story was needed more than ever— and so, “וְאֶת־עַצְמוֹת יוֹסֵף אֲשֶׁר־הֶעֱלוּ בְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל  מִמִּצְרַיִם קָבְרוּ בִשְׁכֶם, the bones of Yosef which the Israelites has brought up from Egypt, they buried in Shechem (24:32).”

In our time, the bones of our ancestors are the values, the traditions, and the mitzvot. When we daven, we carry with us the legacy of our foreparents who prayed for a better life. When we choose to prioritize family time and invest more deeply in the relationships of loved ones, we carry with us the legacy of those who sacrificed endlessly to support and nurture the family whom they held so dear.

In Yiddish, there is a saying, “מע שלעפט גלות, me shlept golus;” as we navigate our time in exile, we do so with the less than pleasant and burdensome act of ‘schlepping’. While the Hebrew word “עול, ol,” is often translated as “burden,” it also means “yoke,” a device used to connect two oxen together to ease the burden of the load. When we carry the stories, the traditions and the commandments of those who came before us, we come to realize that it is the very thing that at first evaluation may seem like a burden, that ultimately allows us to carry the often unexpected weight of life with greater ease.

May we carry in our bones with ease the knowledge that Hashem’s mitzvot, our obligations to God, to those who came before us and those who will come thereafter, ultimately sustain us in a path towards ultimate redemption.

Shabbat Shalom.