Redeeming the bones of Joseph


Like many people of my generation (I’m 68), I’m thinking about downsizing and simplifying. Each week I look at the bookshelf in my study to identify a book I might no longer need, to give away.

Last week I came upon an old prayer book, with a tattered cover and yellowed and deteriorating pages. I thought it was time for the book to be placed in the genizah at my synagogue.  (A genizah is a closet or a box where used paper, prayer books and ritual objects that are considered sacred are collected. The general rule is that anything dealing with sacred subjects should be placed in a genizah, rather than thrown out. Most synagogues clean out their genizot every few years, and bury the contents in a Jewish cemetery as a sign of reverence and respect.) 

I quickly perused the tattered, dusty, old siddur and saw that written on the frontpiece was a dedication to my father on the occasion of his Bar Mitzvah, in 5694 in the Hebrew calendar (1934).  Suddenly, I remembered a story in Parshat Beshallach, in the Book of Exodus, which takes place just before the Israelites fled Egypt. “And Moses took the bones of Joseph with him, for Joseph had made the children of Israel swear, ‘God will be sure to take notice of you: then you shall carry up my bones from here with you.’ ”

Jewish tradition teaches that on the night we left Egypt, the Holy One told Moses to instruct the Israelites to borrow objects of gold and silver from their Egyptian neighbors. As the Israelites grabbed the booty of Egypt, Moses suddenly remembered that he had to carry the bones of Joseph with him.  But Moses did not know where Joseph’s bones were buried, and he knew that the Israelites could not leave Egypt without them.

The midrash (Mechilta) teaches that Moses searched in vain for the coffin of Joseph for three days and nights. Finally, he consulted with Serach, the daughter of Asher, the niece of Joseph, a survivor of that generation, who told Moses where Joseph was buried.

She took Moses to the banks of the Nile, and she told him that the Egyptians had sunk Joseph’s lead coffin in the Nile so that its waters would be blessed. Moses stood on the banks of the river and cried out to the waters: “Joseph, Joseph, the time has come Joseph. The time has come to redeem the oath that you extracted from your brothers. It’s time to go home.”

With those words, the coffin floated to the surface, and Moses placed it on his shoulders and walked off into the wilderness. 

A generation later, after the Israelites entered the Promised Land, Joseph’s bones were buried in Shechem, in the shadow of the place he had been sold into slavery. The bones could only be buried after Joshua died, and right before Eleazar, the son of Aaron, dies, which teaches us that an entire generation must sometimes pass on before we can completely deal with that which is carried over from the past.

To carry bones is to possess the sacred; to bury the bones means getting on with life.

I can’t help but think that the tattered siddur from my father’s Bar Mitzvah is like the bones of Joseph. This siddur holds sacred memories.  Perhaps an essential element of Jewish life is a quest for the bones of Joseph. Sometimes those bones come in the form of text, or ritual, or melody, or holy experiences, or holy people. 

In the Talmud (Sota 13a), Rabbi Meir suggests that Moses was not alone in redeeming the bones of Joseph. Each tribe had to take the bones of their own tribal parents with them – for it is through our families that we redeem the bones of Joseph.

I looked at the siddur and decided it was certainly not destined for the genizah.  I am going to proudly pass it on to my children, along with stories about their Papa Paul.

ALAN FLAM is retired and serves on the steering committee of the Interfaith Coalition to Reduce Poverty and is the organizer and rabbi for Soulful Shabbat, a Saturday morning service that emphasizes silence, chanting, gentle stretching and meditation along with traditional davening and Torah study. He can be reached at

Flam, D'var Torah