Voices of the Past Influence the Present

Beshallah By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Jan 25, 1997 / 5757 | Torah Commentary

I like to daven from old prayer books, especially those awash in personal ties. The sheen of new ones, yet unused, leaves me cold. I am helped by the knowledge that their well-worn pages often brought others great comfort. I treasure two in particular: my father’s traditional siddur from which he davened when not in shul and my great aunt’s pocket siddur printed in Frankfurt in 1939 which was by her side in her concentration camp ordeal. Whenever I daven from these siddurim, I find myself warmed by the memory of loved ones whose lives ease my own quest for religious experience and meaning.

It is this reverence for things past, the ledger of struggles akin to my own, that prompts me to linger each year on a poignant detail of the exodus story. The Torah tells us of Moses’s final act of piety before leaving Egypt: “Now the Israelites went up armed out of the land of Egypt. And Moses took with him the bones of Joseph, who had exacted an oath from the children of Israel, saying, God will be sure to take notice of you: then you shall carry up my bones from here with you’ (Exodus 13:18-19).”

The book of Exodus begins with the obliteration of what Joseph had meant for Egypt (1:8). Moses, who knew nothing of God’s name when called to redeem Israel, seems to be the only one with any recollection of Joseph’s life and death-bed wish. Indeed, Israel had already begun to evacuate Egypt, moving from Raamses to Succoth (12:37), when Moses stops at the last minute to exhume the body of Joseph. Having ended Israel’s bondage, Moses is not too proud to pay homage to the ancestor who rescued his family from famine by resettling it in Egypt. No gravesite or relic is to be left behind that might draw future generations to visit Egypt in veneration.

The midrashic expansion of this fleeting episode plumbs its possibilities. The behavior of Moses contrasts strikingly with that of his emancipated slaves. They celebrate their freedom by plundering their oppressors, while Moses seeks to fulfill the unforgotten command of a leader long gone. But how did Moses know where Joseph was buried? Only Serach the daughter of Asher remained from that generation and she told Moses that the Egyptians had interred Joseph’s body in a metal casket at the bottom of the Nile to bless its waters. Promptly, Moses strode to the river’s bank and adjured Joseph to surface: “Joseph, Joseph, the promise which God swore to Israel to redeem it is about to come true. So too is the final request you made of your descendants. That request and all Israel await you. If you show yourself, wonderful; if not, we are released from the obligation assumed at your death.” The words alone worked and Joseph’s coffin quickly appeared. The midrash adds that for the next forty years, as Israel wended its way through the wilderness, the ark of the covenant with the Ten Commandments traveled alongside the ark that carried the embalmed remains of Joseph. When passersby would inquire as to the nature of these two containers, they would be told that one holds the divine presence and the other a corpse. Shocked by the proximity of that which is most sacred with that which is most profane, they were reassured that the deceased had lived by the precepts inscribed on the two tablets.

For me, this midrash and its scriptural base treat of the relationship between past and present in Judaism. The achievements of Moses don’t erase the memory of Joseph, nor does the public revelation at Mt. Sinai obscure the private experiences of God by the patriarchs. The heady potentiality of the present is tempered by voices from the past. To be Jewish is not a matter of periodic reinvention, but of unfolding continuity.

The deepest commentary on the disinterment of Joseph is provided by Moses himself in his soaring poetic tribute to God. Early into the poem, Moses exclaims: “This is my God and I will enshrine Him; the God of my father and I will exalt Him (Exodus 15:2).” The God of Moses is a composite of personal experience and collective memory, an expression of his own individuality and the tradition of his ancestors. The order of Moses’s articulation implies that ultimately our mature faith in God needs to be our own achievement, but one rooted in the soil of our faith community. When I daven from my father’s siddur, I savor that blend. The words are his, their content is mine. I fill the vessels of tradition with the spirit of my own uniqueness.

Yet another midrash empathizes with Moses’s fear and confusion at the burning bush. It posits that the first voice he heard is that of his father. Not “I am the God of your father (Exodus 3:6),” but “I am your father; no need to be frightened.” We sense God’s presence in the world first through the example of our parents. Faith begins at home. Freud got it backwards: God is not a human projection of a stern father on the cosmic screen, but rather sensitive parents are the medium through which God, ever in search of human partners, first enters the lives of their children.

The irony in this midrash is that Moses hardly knew his parents. Once weaned, he grew up in the alien ambience of the royal palace. That is the reason he fixated on God’s name when called. Distanced from his people, he could identify only with their suffering. Their traditions still eluded him.

As an outsider, Moses came to cherish those traditions, even as he continued to command the etiquette of Egyptian high society. His tribute to Joseph at the moment of his own vindication signaled not that their faiths were identical, as the midrash would have it, but rather his determination to build on the basis of the past. And so we too begin each and every recitation of the traditional amidah (the silent devotion) with the dual invocation of “our God and God of our ancestors.”

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat B’shallah are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.