temple emanu-el
top border
Torah Commentary
B'shalach (January 31, 2015)

Rachel Brumberg, Associate Director of Lifelong Learning

THIS WEEK’S TORAH PORTION, Parashat B’shalach, is the starting point for the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. Once Pharaoh “let the people go” (Exodus 13:17), God leads them out of the land of Egypt by a pillar of cloud during the day and fire at night. And when Pharaoh has a change of heart and sets out with his chariots and officers to overtake them, God tells Moses to lift his rod and hold out his arms to split the Sea of Reeds. The Israelites go through; the water closes; the Egyptians are killed; and we have a story to tell every Passover. This portion also includes songs, timbrels, manna from heaven and our introduction to Amalek — a man to whom all enemies of the Jewish people are said to be related. There’s definitely a lot going on.

But before we get to any of the drama, promises of the past need to be fulfilled. Upon his deathbed, in Parashat Va-y’chi, Joseph says to his children, “I am dying, but God will surely take care of you and bring you up out of this land to the land that [God] promised to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob…bring my bones up from this place!” (Genesis 50:24-25) These words are part of the final verses of the book of Genesis and reiterate something that happens even earlier in the Torah: the covenant that God makes with Abraham.

The Book of Exodus (the second book of the Torah) opens with a genealogy of Joseph and his brothers and a recapping of the death of their generation until we are told, “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” (Exodus 1:8) Then, in the next chapter, Moses is born. And while the Egyptians of Moses’ time may not know Joseph, it is clear from our parashah that Moses knows Joseph. We know this because as the Israelites are leaving Egypt, Moses makes sure to take with him the bones of Joseph in fulfillment of the oath made in Parashat Va-y’chi.

So why am I focusing on this small deed at the beginning of such an action-packed parashah? I think it teaches a great lesson: Even in the face of danger (fleeing from Pharaoh) and the awesome unknown (a new beginning), Moses knows to keep a connection to the past. By bringing the bones of Joseph with him as the Israelites make their exodus from Egypt, Moses fulfills a promise their ancestors made to Joseph, thus establishing both a physical and narrative connection to the creation of the Jewish people and their homeland as promised by God.

It also shows us that before the Torah is written down — or the story is even complete — clearly the people of Israel value their history and keep it alive through the retelling of their own stories. Perhaps being reminded of these promises and their ancestors is what gives them the motivation to continue on and remain together as a people in order to obtain that which is promised to them.

Being part of a community means taking on the history of, including the work already pledged by, those who precede us. By bringing Joseph’s bones with him to this new Promised Land, Moses makes a connection between the past and future of the people of Israel. This story teaches us the power of remembering and honoring the past to help shape the future. Pharaoh does not know Joseph, but Moses does. To this day we still are teaching our children about Joseph — and all of the history of our people since then. It’s a long story and one that continues to be written by us today. Happily, and perhaps not coincidentally, we still are here to tell it.

Join the conversation and post your thoughts. »

Back to Torah Study
photo of temple
One East 65th St., New York, New York 10065. Phone  212-744-1400
One East 65th Street, New York, NY 10065    (212) 744-1400 horizontal rule Member Log In | Calendar | Site Map | Contact Us | Text Size [+] [-]