It is hours before the Exodus. People are hurriedly preparing to flee from Egypt. Can you imagine the commotion?
And where in all of the hubbub is Moses? According to midrash, Moses is running all around looking for a coffin. A coffin. And not just any coffin, but the coffin of Joseph, son of Jacob, ancestor of the Israelites. As Joseph was dying, he made the Israelites swear an oath that when God finally brought them out of Egypt, they would take his bones with them (Genesis 50:25). So now, centuries later, the Exodus is at hand, the people are preparing, and Moses frantically is searching for this coffin.
There are several different versions of how Moses finds Joseph’s coffin (see Deuteronomy Rabbah 11:7, Exodus Rabbah 20:19, and Mekhilta, Vayehi Beshalach 2), but at last he does. And so, as promised, Joseph’s bones are carried out of Egypt by the Israelites as they are freed from slavery.
I’ve often wondered about this. We’re taught, “In every generation, you must see yourself as if you, yourself, went out of Egypt.” We take this Talmudic text literally each year, as we re-enact the Exodus at our seder meals. And in reading parashat Beshalach this week, I want to put myself back into that time and place and imagine why carrying the bones of Joseph was so important.
While there are many answers to that question, the meaning that has resonated for me this year is the notion of learning from our past. We carried Joseph’s bones out of respect for him, surely, and in fulfillment of our promise to him. But there’s more to it than that. We Jews have always honored our ancestors, but not through worship. Instead, we have honored them by learning what they have taught us. Through study, we perpetuate their teachings. We quote their lessons “b’shem omro,” in the name of the one who taught it, even including the pedagogic legacy through the centuries: “Rabbi X said in the name of Rabbi Y, who learned from Rabbi Z …” We engage in sacred study, honoring the past through our debates and discussions. We even read ourselves into the tradition, taking the teachings of our past and applying them conceptually to contemporary circumstances.
This is what Joseph’s bones represent: lifting up our past through study, learning, and engaging our ancestors’ teachings in application to our lives today.
Learning is a fundamental Jewish activity. We know this for the younger generation, as we are commanded “v’shinantam l’vanech” “teach [Torah] diligently to your children” (Deuteronomy 6:7). But study isn’t just for the young. Adult education is a vital part of the Jewish community, whether that’s a weekly Torah study group, an adult education speaker, a panel discussion, or some other format. We are all learners, engaged in the sacred task of study, perpetuating our people’s values through learning its lessons.
There is an outstanding opportunity to do this on Saturday night, February 11, at Temple Beth Rishon in Wyckoff. For the eighth year in a row, the North Jersey Board of Rabbis is sponsoring “Sweet Tastes of Torah,” an evening of exceptional learning and community. (I have the honor this year of co-chairing the event, along with Rabbi Ziona Zelazo.) Twenty different rabbis from congregations across the area will offer sessions on a variety of topics. Drawing on the portion this week, and its overlap with Tu b’Shvat on Saturday, sessions include classes about Jewish music and poetry, ecology and the environment, the symbolism of trees and the experience of crossing the sea. All of them honor our past by drawing upon Biblical and Rabbinic texts, while inviting us to apply their teachings to the world today. The evening begins when the doors open at 6:30 p.m., followed by a community Havdalah service, two periods of classes at 7:30 p.m. and 8:40 p.m., and a delicious, festive Tu b’Shvat-themed reception. It is northern New Jersey’s pre-eminent evening of adult Jewish learning and study and I invite you to be a part of it. For more details, including a list of sponsoring congregations, participating rabbis, and course offerings, check out the website at www.sweettastesoftorah.weebly.com.
When we gather in learning, we lift up our past as surely as the Israelites lifted up Joseph’s coffin. They carried his bones throughout their time in the wilderness. We carry on the tradition of study and learning, honoring our ancestors, their teachings, and values. May they always have meaning in our lives today.