Carrying our bones (Radical Torah repost)
January 08, 2009
Here's the d'var Torah I wrote for this week's portion in 2007, originally published at the now-defunct Radical Torah.
At the beginning of this week's portion, Vayehi, we encounter Jacob on his deathbed:
Jacob lived seventeen years in the land of Egypt, so that the span of Jacob's life came to one hundred and forty-seven years. And when the time approached for Israel to die, he summoned his son Joseph and said to him, "Do me this favor, place your hand under my thigh as a pledge of your steadfast loyalty: please do not bury me in Egypt. When I lie down with my fathers, take me up from Egypt and bury me in their burial-place."
It's a striking last request, and his son Joseph makes a similar one at the very end of the portion (and the end of Bereshit): "When God has taken notice of you, you shall carry up my bones from here." On one level, it's a very physical thing to ask: don't bury me here in a foreign land. Take my bones out of here. Settle them in the place I consider home." On another level, it's a request with a lot of emotional resonance. What our forefathers may have been asking is something like, "Don't leave me behind. Don't forget me here. Carry me with you when you go."
Jacob's request is immediately fulfilled. After his body is embalmed for forty days (there's that number again, symbol of bringing a task to full fruition), Joseph seeks Pharaoh's permission to carry his father home. Pharaoh grants it, recognizing the importance of the oath Joseph has sworn. With great fanfare and procession Jacob is carried to the Cave of Machpelah, and a week of mourning is observed before Joseph and the entourage return to Egypt.
Joseph's request, in turn, is designed to be deferred. Perhaps he is aware that under these new circumstances -- he is an old man, no longer in power -- his sons will not be able to carry him forth promptly, as he had done with the body of his father. Instead he solicits the promise that when God has taken notice of his descendants, they are to take him with them. And that is where the book ends, foreshadowing the exodus but pausing before the narrative can take us to that conclusion.
I see a particular poignancy in Joseph's request. He knows it may take generations for his wish to be fulfilled. And I think he also knows that if his bones were left behind, that would be tremendously painful for his descendants, a wound that could impact generations to come. In 1993 I visited Prague for the first time, and went with my grandparents to the cemetary where my grandmother's parents are buried...and realized how difficult it must have been for my grandmother to emigrate, leaving their graves behind. All four of my grandparents had to make that kind of decision, and it can't have been easy.
Surely Joseph impressed his instruction upon his descendants because he wanted to be brought out of Egypt. But maybe he also impressed it upon them because he didn't want them to suffer the sadness of being distant from their history. If they had left their ancestors' bones behind, that would have been just one more excuse for them to bemoan their departure, to wish they had never left. They might have felt impossibly lonely, disconnected not only from the only home they had ever known but also from those they had buried there. Carrying his bones allowed them to feel they were bringing their history -- their story -- with them on the journey toward unknown freedom.
Of course, the comparison between the Israelites packing up Joseph's bones, and my grandparents having to leave their ancestors' bones behind, breaks down under scrutiny. Europe wasn't Mitzrayim, and America isn't the Promised Land, at least not in the traditional sense of the term. But the analogy continues to move me; I find an emotional resonance in it which transcends the physical. The Israelites carried their ancestors' bones with them as a physical sign of the emotional connection that bound them to their history, to where they had come from and who their forebears had been.
For us today, that emotional connection may be what matters, even if exhuming and transporting our ancestors' bones would never cross our minds. In a world of increased mobility, where we may live too far-away to visit and venerate our ancestors' burial-places, we have to find other ways of carrying them with us. When I migrated from south Texas to Massachusetts, I brought my grandparents with me: in the abundance of photographs and artifacts that decorate my home, in my grandfather's tallit and the framed page from my great-grandmother's cookbook, and most importantly in the memories of who they were and how important we were to one another. Those are the "bones" that matter to me.
I like to think that as I continue to struggle toward liberation -- as I enact the recurring process of recognizing the constraints which bind me, and accepting God's help in moving through them into a place of freedom -- I carry my ancestors with me. Each of us can play a small part in fulfilling Joseph's request: that as we move from slavery to freedom, we bring with us the talismanic reminder of where and who we come from, so that our ancestors are never left behind.