By Rachel Rubin Green, January 15, 2022
After my Uncle Frank Forchheimer died in the year 2000, my parents and I cleaned out his apartment. Among a stack of self-help books stored high up in a hall closet, we found a German Language Jewish Bible. Leafing through this Bible, my mother suddenly collapsed on the couch. “I can’t believe he still has this,” she said. “I remember when some old man came to our house and gave it to him. The man was the leader of what was left of the Coburg Jewish community. It was just a few weeks before Frank left.” Then my mother flipped to inscription on the title page, showed it to me, and translated, “To Franz Forchheimer, that you should always remember the Jewish Community of Coburg. Signed Dr. A. Masur, Spokesperson.” The inscription was dated the 15th of Shevat, Tu’B’Shevat, 5699; the 4th of February, 1939. That this man, Dr. Masur, came to the Forchheimer family home and gave Uncle Frank this Bible was the sum total of Frank’s Bar Mitzvah.
Some years later I looked up which Parsha would have been read on that day on the Hebcal website. It would have been today’s Parsha, BeShalach. As many of you know, I occasionally write stories based on the snippets of Jewish life in Nazi Germany that I learned from my mother. In trying to flesh out these stories, with characters, scenes and conversations, I wanted to create a conversation based on a verse or event in the Parsha that might have occurred between young Franz and Dr. Masur during his visit. I also try to develop the personalities of the characters to be consistent with the individuals that I knew as adults. As an older man, Uncle Frank was active in local Jewish Philanthropy and also regularly attended a weekly Torah study group at his synagogue. Therefore, I wanted this invented conversation to promote a young man’s interest in further Torah study.
I was immediately struck by the verse early in the Parsha, “And Moses took with him the bones of Joseph, who had exacted an oath from the Children of Israel, saying, ‘God will be sure to take notice of you: then you shall carry up my bones from here with you.’” (Chapter 13, verse 19). In my fictional scene, I focus only on the first phrase of this verse, using the image of the Israelites carrying Joseph’s bones out of Egypt with them as a springboard for Dr. Masur and Franz to discuss what Franz should take with him when he leaves Germany on a Kindertransport. My imagined scene ends when Franz wraps this Bible in his pajamas and tucks it into the satchel he packs for his journey. Over 60 years later, when he died in Columbus, Ohio, he still had it. Since I wrote this scene, Parshat BeShalach is invariably tied to remembering my beloved Uncle Frank. I speak today in his honor.
Today I want to explore this same verse in greater depth. And I want to thank both my sons for their help, intentional or not, in preparing these remarks.
Stevie reminded me that this verse includes a restatement of the second to the last verse of Sefer Breshit, Genesis 50:25, “So Joseph made the sons of Israel swear, saying, ‘When God has taken notice of you, you shall carry up my bones from here.’” The verse in BeShalach adds one word to the quote from Breshit, the word “Et Chem,” with you, the you in the plural. The Siftei Chachamim, in discussing Rashi’s comments on this verse, say that the Et Chem is added to mean that the bones not only of Joseph, but also of all his brothers should be brought out with the Israelites in the Exodus. This would make at least 12 of the Israelites responsible for carrying bone boxes, not just one.
The Rabbis often focus on duplicated words in the Torah. Both iterations of this verse have the phrase “HashBayAh, HeeshBeeAh,” from the root Shin Bet Ayin, which means to swear. Rashi and Siftei Chachmim see the repetition as Joseph asking his brothers to swear to make their children swear this same oath; to bring his, and theirs, including the brothers, bones out. After all, Joseph, in asking his brothers to swear this, did not know how many generations would yet live in Egypt before God would intervene to bring Jacob’s descendants back to Eretz Yisrael. To make sure that Joseph’s bones are not forgotten, each generation of Israelites in Egypt must have repeated the same vow. A few commentaries cite this as the reason for the repetition of the word “to swear.”
The commentator Chizkuni has a more spiritual interpretation. In making his brothers promise to bring out his bones, Joseph is giving them an opportunity to complete their repentance for selling him into slavery to begin with. When Joseph is buried in the land of Israel, then the spiritual damage of the initial kidnapping and sale has been repaired.
Bringing us back to the story of the Exodus, Kli Yakar’s commentary says that Moses wanted to carry Joseph’s bones with him to guarantee the splitting of the Reed Sea. Moses was confident that the merit of Joseph would force God to split the sea. Rabbenu Bachya repeats this claim.
Rabbenu Bachya also notes that this verse names Moses individually. The previous Torah verse states, “The Israelites went up armed out of Egypt.” We know from other commentaries on other verses that as the Israelites left Egypt, they took gold and jewelry, their own and their neighbors, as their Egyptian neighbors mourned the deaths of their firstborns. In this verse, the Israelites also collect weapons as they flee. Rabbenu Bachya notices that while the Israelites are dealing with practical and material concerns of preparing for the journey; Moses, in locating and carrying the bones of Joseph, is occupied with spiritual matters.
Parshat VaYiggash, near the end of B’reshit, lists the names of the children and grandchildren of Jacob who settle in Egypt. In his drash on VaYiggash, our son Andy mentioned that only two women are named, Jacob’s daughter Dina and Serach bat Asher. Torah mentions Serach twice, once going into Egypt and once, in Sefer B’Midbar, coming out. This leaves a greater than 400-year gap for the authors of Midrash to play with. In our Torah moment, Moses needs to find the grave of Joseph. One Midrash tells us that Serach Bat Asher was the only Israelite alive at that time who had actually attended Joseph’s burial, so she was able to guide Moses to the correct place. Another Midrash says that the Egyptians had thrown Joseph’s casket into the Nile, and that Serach recited special verses to conjure it back to the surface so the bones could be collected. Either way, she remains a magical character, who facilitates taking Joseph’s bones with the Israelites on their journey.
Finally, Rabbenu Bachya also comments, “Joseph had acquired the merit of having brought his father Yaacov to burial in Eretz Yisrael; as a result he received the distinction of having his own remains taken out of Egypt by someone greater than himself, by Moses. Then, in return for having performed this commandment, Moses himself was interred by someone greater than himself, by the Almighty.” Here Rabbenu Bachya creates a hierarchy of merit based on burial practices. In his hierarchy, merit, or holiness, is increased by meeting the requests, commandments, or vows of the deceased regarding their preferred final resting place. While I might want think that burying my uncle or my parents according to their wishes increases my merit before the Holy One, thinking that would be a willful misinterpretation of traditional Halachic burial practices. It would also miss what I have come to think of as a primary lesson of this verse.
I started this D’var Torah with a lengthy explanation of how and why I attached to this verse. The opening phrase, “And Moses took with him the bones of Joseph,” is indeed a good starting point for discussing what to take while preparing to leave one home for another, however rapid the departure. But reading the complete verse, and learning some of the commentaries that I have shared, has given me a different, and I hope, deeper, understanding. Moses took with him the bones of Joseph because Joseph had exacted an oath from the children of Israel. Moses fulfiiled a promise made by his ancestors generations earlier. He met an obligation(s) his forbears had laid out for him.
My friend and teacher Rabbi Rachel Adler often says that “What makes Torah Holy is that it’s interpretations are infinite.” This exploration of a single verse is an example of this principle. Every time we engage in any ritual activity: prayer, discussion, study, and so on, we fulfill some obligations our ancestors laid out for us. In order to do this, we need to continue to engage with the Torah text – “La’aSok B’Divrei Torah” – to busy ourselves in words of Torah. Throughout our history, whenever and wherever Jews move, no matter what causes us to change our location in the world, we bring the book. This fulfills ancient promises for ourselves and sets a model for our descendants. We are the people of the book.
My uncle brought the book.