Passover Day 7 – 5783
Ex. 13:17 – 15:26 and Num. 28:19-25
Rabbi Gary Pokras
We have spent the past seven days retelling the story of the Exodus from Egypt. Now as Pesach reaches its conclusion we read about “what happened next.”
And it happened when Pharoah sent the people off that God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines though it was close, for God thought, “Lest the people regret when they see battle and go back to Egypt.” And God turned the people round by way of the wilderness of the Sea of Reeds, and the Israelites went up armed from the land of Egypt. And Moses took the bones of Joseph with him, for he had solemnly made the sons of Israel swear, saying, “God will surely single you out, and you shall take up my bones with you from here.” [Ex. 13:17-19]
This short passage is packed with detail. It explains God’s decision not to lead the people by the straight road: a coastal route that was heavily guarded. Yet, the text also details that the people left Egypt well-armed. If the Israelites were well armed, why would God send them away from conflict? There is no contradiction here. God knew that the Israelites/former slaves were ill prepared. No matter how well-armed they might have been, they did not know how to defend themselves, and possibly, had no faith in their own abilities to do so. To send them towards conflict would have set them up for immediate failure.
This seems to be a sensible, practical approach. The same could be said for most of the rest of this section of Torah, which describes the practical considerations of the first stages of our journey.
Why then, do the next two verses focus on Moses personally exhuming the bones of Joseph and taking them out of Egypt?
One possible answer was to fulfill an oath, which is what the Torah offers as a surface explanation. In the book of Genesis, Joseph makes his brothers swear at his death bed that his bones would one day be brought out of Egypt to the Promised Land. At that time, he foretold a time when “God surely remembers you and takes you out of this land.” [Gen. 50:24] While nobody had assimilated more into Egyptian culture than Joseph, he still understood that our future was in our own land. Hundreds of years later, Moses fulfilled the promise his ancestor made, and perhaps for that reason alone, this act was worth mentioning in the text.
There is a midrash, however, that offers a deeper rationale. It plays on the uniqueness of Moses – for he was unlike any other prophet or leader of our people. In the Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael, we read that Moses took the bones of Moses for another reason: “This is to show Moses’ wisdom and faithfulness, for while all of Israel was occupied with the riches [taken from Egypt], Moses alone took care of Joseph’s bones.” [Mekhilta de R. Ishmael, B’Shallach 1] In other words, in addition to fulfilling his oath, Moses was teaching us that material wealth will not sustain us over time. What will sustain us is memory. We need to remember and honor our ancestors, and through them the values of our tradition. Only then will we not only survive but endure as a people.
Pesach is about remembering not only what happened so long ago, but also that the Promise continues until this day. And as we count the Omer, we are also reminded of the future two which that Promise leads. It is not enough for us to sit around our seder tables in relative comfort. With all the noise in the world around us, and in our very lives, we must remember that we are Jews, and that we are called to a higher purpose.