Efrat, Israel — “And Moses brought the bones of Joseph with him, since [Joseph] had adjured the children of Israel to take an oath; [Joseph] had said, ‘God will surely remember you; bring up my bones with you from this [place].’” [Ex. 13:19]
At the climax of the ten plagues, with the Israelites escaping their Egyptian slave masters, the Torah suddenly makes reference to a heroic personality from the Book of Genesis, Joseph.
Why interrupt the drama of the Exodus with the detail of concern over Joseph’s remains? From a certain perspective, Joseph’s name even evokes a jarring note at this moment of Israel’s freedom. After all, Joseph may well be seen as representing the opposite of Moses: Joseph begins within the family of Jacob-Israel, and moves outside of it as he rises to great heights in Egypt, whereas Moses begins as a prince of Egypt and moves into the family of Israel when he smites the Egyptian taskmaster.
Joseph is the one who brings the children of Jacob into Egypt whereas Moses takes them out; Joseph gives all of his wisdom and energy to Egypt whereas Moses gives all of his wisdom and energy to the Israelites. It can even be argued that the very enslavement of the Israelites by the Egyptians was a punishment for Joseph’s having enslaved the Egyptians to Pharaoh as part of his economic policy (Gen. 47:19–23). So why bring up the remains of Joseph at this point in the story?
The fact is that Joseph is a complex and amazing personality who very much stands at the crossroads of—and serves as a vital connection between—the Books of Genesis and Exodus. The jealous enmity of the brothers towards Joseph was in no small way rooted in the grandiose ambition expressed in his dreams: sheaves of grain evoke Egyptian agriculture rather than Israeli shepherding, and the bowing sun, moon and stars smack of Joseph’s cosmic domination.
Despite the truths that we have just expressed, Joseph certainly symbolizes not only the Jew who rises to a most prominent position in Egypt—a Henry Kissinger to the tenth degree. He also introduced Pharaoh to the God of Israel and the universe, when he stood before the monarch about to interpret his dreams. And is it not Israel’s mission to be a kingdom of priest-teachers and a holy nation with the mandate of perfecting the world in the kingship of the divine?
Moreover, with his very last breaths, in the closing lines of the book of Genesis (50:24–25), does not Joseph profess absolute faith in God’s eventual return of the Israelites to their homeland, at which time he makes his brothers swear that his remains will be taken “home” to Israel? Despite the prominence he attained in Egypt, he understands that Israel is the only eternal home for the descendants of Abraham!
The Midrash describes a fascinating scene:
When the Israelites went forth from Egypt, two casks [aronot] accompanied them for forty years in the desert: the cask of [the divine Torah that they had received as family tradition until that time] and the casket of Joseph.
The nations of the world would ask, “What is the nature of these two casks? Is it necessary for the cask of the dead to go together with the cask of [Torah]?” The answer is that the one who is buried in this [cask] fulfilled whatever is written in that [cask]. [Tanhuma, Beshalach 2]
Generally this midrash is understood to be saying that Joseph fulfilled the moral commandments already expressed in the Torah from the story of Creation up until and including the Exodus. After all, Joseph was moral and upright, even to the extent of rebuffing the enticements of the beautiful “Mrs. Potiphar,” thereby earning the appellation of “the righteous one.”
However, I would suggest an alternate interpretation: The Torah of the Book of Exodus encased in one cask fulfilled the dreams, expectations and prophecies of Joseph buried in the other cask.
Joseph foresaw an eventual exodus from Egypt and return to Israel. Joseph also foresaw a cosmic obeisance of the sun, moon and stars to the universal God of justice and peace whom he represented. This, too, was fulfilled when the world was paralyzed by the force of the plagues, when the nations trembled at the destruction of Egypt and the victory of the Israelites when the Sea of Reeds split apart:
“Nations heard and shuddered; terror gripped the inhabitants of Philistia. Edom’s chiefs then panicked, Moab’s heroes were seized with trembling, Canaan’s residents melted away…God will reign supreme forever and ever.” [Ex. 15:14–15,18]
At the supreme triumphant moment of the Exodus, Moses stops to fulfill a vow and take the bones of Joseph out of Egypt and into Israel with the Israelites. Moses wanted the faith of Joseph, the universality of Joseph, the morality of Joseph, the grandeur of Joseph, to accompany the Israelites throughout their sojourn in the desert (suggesting subsequent Jewish exiles), and to enter the Land of Israel and influence the Jewish commonwealth.