Chancellor's Parashah Commentary
Shabbat Shirah/Tu b'Sh'vat
February 7, 2004 15 Sh'vat 5764
I cherish the books of my father that are scattered throughout my library. Long gone, he and I still meet on the pages of books he once pored over. Many an interest of mine has been piqued by a rare book from his collection. An heirloom is often a catalyst. He lived in the world of his books as do I, surely a trait I internalized through exposure. When forced to leave Germany after Kristallnacht at age thirty-nine, he was able to take his books with him. They anchored his psyche during the disorienting transition to a new language, culture and society. Though stripped of all foliage, he enjoyed the benefit of deep roots.
What we take with us is a statement of our values. In the case of the Israelites enslaved in Egypt, they spent their final hurried moments before leaving, getting their just deserts. "The Israelites had done Moses' bidding and borrowed from the Egyptians objects of silver and gold, and clothing. And the Lord had disposed the Egyptians favorably toward the people, and they let them have their request; thus they stripped the Egyptians" (Exodus 12:35-36). The concern of the Israelites, then, was understandably wholly materialistic. They demanded remuneration for hundreds of years of forced labor from which many must have perished. Indeed, Moses instructed them to plunder their oppressors because long before God had promised Abraham that his descendants would emerge from their bondage "with great wealth" (Genesis 15:14).
Personally, Moses heeded another part of the oral legacy that must have circulated among the Israelites. At the beginning of this week's parashah, we are told that Moses' last act before departing was to secure the mummified remains of Joseph for eventual burial in the land of Israel. It was a deathbed wish that he had asked of his brothers: "When God has taken notice of you, you shall carry up my bones from here" (Genesis 50:25).
I have always been stirred by this cryptic narrative fragment, as has the midrash. The Mekhilta, the oldest rabbinic commentary on the book of Exodus, noted the stark contrast in the behavior of Moses and the Israelites: "While they despoiled, he fulfilled Joseph's command." It deemed Moses' act of self-denial a measure of his wisdom and piety, a bracing example of the verse in Proverbs (10:8) that "He whose heart is wise accepts commands" (Mekhilta, ed. Horovitz. p. 78).
For me, the act is an instance of spiritual grandeur. Duty takes precedence over personal profit. The Egyptians, according to our midrashic commentary, had not made things easy for Moses. By hiding Joseph's sarcophagus, they seemed intent on putting yet another obstacle in the path of his progeny's departure. At last, Moses came across Serah, the daughter of Asher, the brother of Joseph. An eyewitness, she recalled the spot where the Egyptians had sunk Joseph's coffin in the Nile. Moses proceeded to the spot, tossed in a stone and admonished Joseph not to delay his children's redemption any further. The time he had foretold was at hand. If he did not appear immediately, they would no longer be bound by his oath. Miraculously, the coffin surfaced on the spot.
Our spare text and creative midrash combine to accentuate the meaning of the moment. At the end, we return to the beginning. It was not accident but design that has brought Jacob's clan to Egypt. Joseph was but an instrument of God's will. To remove Joseph from Egypt affirmed the divine purpose that informed the ordeal of slavery. Israel's destiny had been foreordained. The act of fidelity illuminated a larger canvas, even as it deprived future generations of a reason to return to Egypt.
Like many a national leader, Moses came from outside the fold. He had spent more than a few years a heartbeat away from the seat of Egyptian power. The vantage point intensified his reverence for the patriarchal traditions of his adopted folk. That is why, at the critical moment, it was Moses, and not Aaron, the quintessential insider, who set out to exhume Joseph. Moses alone appreciated that the history of his people did not begin with him or the Exodus. His own relationship with God had been preceded by, if not predicated upon, God's relationship with the patriarchs. In his song of jubilation, Moses spoke tellingly of "the God of my father" (Exodus 15:2). Unpacking that phrase, Rashi in the eleventh century offered the following brilliant comment: "I am not the beginning of holiness. Rather holiness and its divine source exist and are available to me from the days of my ancestors". In searching for Joseph's grave, Moses acknowledged that he was but part of a larger narrative. He subsumed the self to a past redolent with sparks of holiness. His reward for personally attending to the transfer of Joseph's body, according to the Mekhilta, was that one day God would personally bury Moses (p.79).
To revere the past is to acquire a compass for navigating the future. My father's library, replete with sacred books, gave him a sense of continuity and stability in the face of chaos. They were the functional equivalent of Joseph's presence for a nation trapped in the wilderness: testimony that in the end, God's word would prevail.