Exodus 13:17 - 17:16
And Moses took the bones of Joseph with him; for he [Joseph] had made the sons of Israel swear, saying, "God will surely single you out; and you will carry up my bones away hence with you." (Ex. 13:19)
If the census in the book of Numbers is correct, then somewhere between 1.5 and 2 million former Israelite slaves left Egypt - and Moses was responsible for them all! Leaving must have been chaotic, to say the least: we were not yet organized by tribe, Moses had not yet assigned deputies and the clock was ticking against the possibility that Pharaoh would once again change his mind.
So I find it remarkable, in the midst of all this, that Moses made sure to personally exhume Joseph's remains for transport out of Egypt and their eventual return to the Promised Land.
Our tradition teaches that those who have died cannot thank us for our kindnesses. For that reason, the mitzvot of caring for the dead are among the highest and most important of all the commandments. Most Jewish communities have chevrei kedishah, secret societies of volunteers who wash and prepare those who have died for burial, and stand “guard” reciting Psalms so that the deceased are never left alone before the funeral. The identities of these holy volunteers are kept secret so that neither the living nor the dead can thank them for their acts of pure and loving compassion.
Moses, whose humility was made famous by the rabbis, may well have found deep personal meaning in caring for Joseph in the midst of the Exodus.
That said, I think there is another, equally compelling value at play here - operating side by side with the beauty of caring for the dead. Joseph, in predicting that God would one day bring the Israelites out from Egypt, spoke as a prophet; the promise he exacted from his brothers spoke to the importance of taking the long view. While Joseph could never thank Moses for fulfilling Joseph's dying wish, Moses' act had timely realpolitik value: Joseph's bones reminded the Israelites that they were not merely escaping servitude in Egypt, they were going home.
We would do well to take both of these lessons to heart. We should be caring and compassionate regardless of any expectation of payment or thanks, and we should remember that wherever we are, we are probably still in Egypt (at least in part) - and God is beckoning us home.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2015 Rabbi Gary Pokras