“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 13:19)
One can imagine the great confusion as the Israelites prepared to leave Egypt. On short notice, they had to gather children and families, cattle, and possessions. They also took gold and other valuables given to them by the Egyptians, gold that would later be used to build, first a golden calf, then a tabernacle. In addition, the Torah teaches that a large swatch of non-Israelites exited with the Israelites. Very shortly they would approach the sea, where they would once again be confronted by Pharaoh. It must have been pure bedlam.
Where was Moses during these hectic moments? The Torah provides an amazing answer. Moses was making sure that the Israelites carried the bones of their ancestor Joseph with them, buried generations before. The Israelites had promised that they would not leave Joseph’s remains behind, and now it was Moses who hurried to fulfill this promise. But Moses was not alone in fulfilling this promise; he needed help.
According to the Midrash, Moses searches for Joseph’s bones but could not locate them. At this point he turns to an old woman, one of the only women mentioned in the mostly male genealogies given earlier (see Genesis 46:17). According to the Talmud (Sotah 13a), Serah the daughter of Asher was a survivor of the generation that originally went down to Egypt. Moses goes to her and asks about the bones of Joseph. She replies that the Egyptians made a metal casket and set it in the Nile River so it would be blessed. Moses goes to the river and calls out, “Joseph, the time has come.” Immediately the casket floats to the top of the river. This is the reason Serah is mentioned by name and considered a heroine of the people Israel.
This raises an important point. So often we hear that Jewish tradition is patriarchal, and that women are pushed into the background. Certainly, there is some truth to that. But then our tradition surprises us. Serah the daughter of Asher is a woman mentioned in the midst of a male genealogy, a woman who makes a different. She is one of many feminine role models stretching back to Biblical times who influences the history of the people Israel.
When the Israelites left Egypt, they were looking forward to the future. Why were Joseph’s bones important? Perhaps they represent an important link to the past. Perhaps there is a deep lesson in this story, we cannot move into the future until we remember our past. We cannot decide where we are going until we know where we came from. This is a lesson that parents know as they raise their children. They prepare their children to leave home and face their futures. But they also must give them a past – memories, values, and traditions – with which to face that future. Moses wants the people to know where they came from. This was the power of Joseph’s bones.
When my wife and I raised our children, we put a lot of energy, and in all honesty, a lot of money, into giving them a past. We sent them to Hebrew Day schools, United Synagogue Youth, and Camp Ramah, so they would know who they are and where they came from. Our children are now adults, making their own way in the world. All three of them live out-of-state. Each has decided their own path in life. But we gave them a past, and we pray that this past will influence them as they decide where to go in the future.