In the midst of the rushed escape of the Israelites from Egypt, the Bible inserts a single sentence that describes a daring mission performed by none other than the leader himself: “And Moses took the bones of Joseph with him; for he (Joseph) had sworn the children of Israel, saying: ‘God will surely command you; that you shall carry up my bones from here with you (Exodus 13:19).'”
Fulfilling Joseph’s last wish was certainly an act of kindness, but as the spearhead of a two million strong exodus, the accountable behavior on Moses’ part would have been to focus on more pragmatic matters. Yet the Bible celebrates his personal involvement. Indeed, a midrashic passage portrays Moses spending three days and nights searching the city for Joseph’s remains (Breishit Rabbati Va-Yehi).
There are unique circumstances, the Passover passage indicates, when focusing on the few is ultimately in the best interest of the many. The prototypical Biblical model for this seemingly counterintuitive prioritization is when it comes to recovering the remains of an Israelite who did not receive proper burial.
For the past three and a half years, the State of Israel has stood once again before a similar choice. The bodies of two of its sons who accepted the duty of defending their fellow citizens, Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul, are being held by Hamas in Gaza. Despite its core obligation to every soldier who puts his or her life on the line and multiple promises to fulfil this pledge, and in the face of the persistent, morally-high grounded pleading of their families and supporters, the government has not yet brought their remains home.
Precedent for the ethos of “the bones of Joseph,” is not limited to the Biblical exodus story. Actions taken in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust exemplify this ideal.
On September 12, 1946, a large crowd gathered at the Great Synagogue on Allenby Street in Tel-Aviv for an extraordinary funeral procession. Rather than honoring a recently deceased person, however, a casket was carried containing the ashes of Jews murdered in the Nazi death camp of Chelmno in Poland. This event, which was led by Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Palestine Ben-Zion Meir Hai Ouziel and attended by the mayor of Tel Aviv and other officials, was the first of many such similar interment ceremonies that took place during the following decade in cemeteries throughout land.
The fact that immense political, financial, and logistic efforts were expended to recover and airlift these ashes, is no less astounding than the Biblical account of Moses during the Exodus. The decade that began in 1946 witnessed, among others, the massive dislocation of European Jewish survivors, intense struggles against the British Mandate government over limitations on immigration, alongside tension-filled international diplomatic efforts to secure Israel’s independence. Throughout the following years, blood-drenched military battles that took lives and drastic economic crises related to the absorption of hundreds of thousands of refugees and new immigrants from Europe, North Africa, and Asia threatened the new country’s precarious survival. Regardless of these very real existential concerns, grassroot advocates and international organizations worked with the government of Israel (which sometimes did so grudgingly and other times more eagerly) to direct resources toward gathering the remains of the Holocaust victims and transporting them from Eastern Europe for burial in Israel.
How was this accomplished? The campaign led by influential rabbis and activists that fanned collective pressure from the hundreds of thousands of immigrant survivors was crucial. Had such demands not been based on a deeply-rooted Jewish ethos, would it have been sufficiently compelling? Following in the footsteps of Moses, those who championed this cause, including high-level government officials, asserted that the remains of Jews who were left abroad due to circumstances beyond their control and whose families desperately sought their recovery for burial in the Land of Israel, could not be abandoned – even if it meant taking bold steps that heavily complicated other goals.
Why hasn’t the Israeli government made good on its openly-stated commitment to bring back the bodies of Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul? The simple explanation for this tragic predicament is that, notwithstanding a principled desire to fulfill this mission, the government cannot undermine its central objectives by overly-concerning itself with the difficulties of the few. No doubt, there is a cold logic to this posture, but that in itself does not make it justifiable. From time immemorial, as highlighted here, taking risks and digressing from key tasks in order to rescue Jewish remains has emerged as a core Jewish ethos. Just this past week, the world was reminded once again that when the Israeli army dedicates its creative minds to a mission, it is able to achieve extraordinary results – often with far less collateral damage than was initially estimated. Minimally, then, the Jewish State must be doing all that is within its power to remain steadfast in its commitment to bring back the bodies of its soldiers. To date, there are strong indications that this has not been the case.
As in the post-Holocaust era, grassroots efforts make a difference. Lay people cannot physically bring back the bodies of Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul, but they can motivate the decision makers to take action. This year’s re-enactment of the Exodus experience on Passover eve, then, is an opportunity for each person sitting at the seder table to cultivate awareness regarding the monumental ethos of recovering “Joseph’s bones” pioneered by Moses, and reaffirmed immediately after the Holocaust. At the procession in Tel Aviv in 1946, Chief Rabbi Ouziel declared that: “These holy ashes shall be laid in public as an eternal memorial…to comfort and gain mercy for those of Israel who are here, through the ‘return of their sons to their borders’ …” No less so today, it is time for all of us to be more dedicated to convincing the State of Israel to own up fully to its historical and moral mandate of ve-shavu vanim le-gevulam and bring home the “bones of [our] Josephs.”