Genesis to Exodus: Remembering the Bones

On the Shabbat of Jan. 5-6 we will transition from the book of Genesis to the book of Exodus. This moment in time comes at the beginning of winter and marks the transition to the new season.

This year I’ve noticed how the stories of the Torah that fall around the solstice speak of the birth of light: Jacob wrestling with an angel until dawn to get his new name, the veiled Tamar lying with Judah to conceive and bear twins named “bursting” (Peretz) and “shining” (Zerach), Joseph being thrown into a pit and drawn out again. Even the story of Joseph revealing himself to his brothers and offering them grain and sustenance seems to hint at the rebirth of the sun.

Yet, just as much remains in darkness this winter, much remains in darkness at the end of Genesis. While Joseph and his brothers meet and embrace, they never really talk about how Joseph was sold into slavery or take responsibility for their former actions (this was pointed out by Rabbi J. Rolando Matalon last Shabbat in his sermon). Jacob, who emigrates to Egypt as an old man, describes his years as “few and hard” and does not tell us how he interprets these new events in his life. We never hear what happens to Dinah after her rape or learn how Leah died. We don’t know how the children of Jacob will adjust to their new land. We don’t know what Joseph really feels about his brothers. At the end of Genesis, all is still a mystery. The revelations of spring have not yet come to pass.

Yet these revelations will come, and this truth is encoded at the end of Parashat Vayechi, this week’s Torah portion. Many years after Jacob’s death, as Joseph is dying, he commands his brothers to bury him in the land of Canaan: but not right away. Joseph will be buried in Egypt, and in a later generation, when the Israelites leave Egypt, they are to carry Joseph’s bones with them. The final words of Genesis are “vayisem ba’aron bemitzrayim”—“he was placed in a coffin in Egypt.”

By making this decree, Joseph entwines his life with the life of the people and of the land. He makes himself more than one person: he is the carrier of the people’s soul. Joseph’s bones have not yet made their final journey, where they will enter the earth and lend their life-force to the land. Joseph’s body is embalmed in a coffin. In order for the people’s life to proceed, this coffin must be opened and the body returned to the earth of the tribal homeland. If Joseph were a Tarot card, he would be the Hanged Man, the one who achieves rebirth through loss, or the Magician, the one who transforms one thing into another.

The plot thickens. Jewish legend holds that the Egyptians sink Joseph’s coffin in the Nile so the Israelites will never be able to find it. (Note that in spring the Nile itself is a source of life.) Only one descendant of Jacob remembers where the coffin is: Serach, the daughter of Asher, who was blessed by Jacob with impossibly long life. It is she who first told Jacob that Joseph was alive, and now it is she who preserves the knowledge of the location of his coffin for four hundred years.

Clarissa Pinkola Estes, folklorist and interpreter of legends, speaks of the mythic character of La Que Sabe, She who Knows. In fact, Estes describes the advice of La Que Sabe as “Go gather bones.” La Que Sabe knows where truth lies. She collects bones and sings over them. She breathes new life into the past, into the dead. In Jewish lore, Serach is La Que Sabe, keeping the knowledge of the people for when it will be needed. Indeed, it is she who identifies Moses as the redeemer when he returns to Egypt.

Moses, after his encounter with a fiery plant known as the Burning Bush, embarks on a mission to free the now-enslaved Israelites. But in order to deliver them, he must find the bones of Joseph and take them with him. The bones are the life-spirit of the nation. Moses must have them in order to continue the tribe. It is Serach who leads Moses to the Nile, the river of life. Moses, by tossing in an amulet representing the four directions and four worlds, causes Joseph’s coffin to rise to the surface. Joseph is dislodged from the repressed knowledge of the people: he once again becomes a symbol of renewal.

Marcia Falk, a well-known creative liturgist, begins a Rosh Chodesh prayer over wine by quoting Isaiah: “your bones shall flower like new grass.” Joseph’s bones represent the bones of the trees in winter, soon to revive. His coffin, called an aron or ark, will give way to the aron or ark of the covenant: the container of life, not death. The end of Genesis is a hint of what Exodus will bring.

And us? We too are beneath the Nile. This is because of the season, but also because life is overwhelming. Some of us are deeply affected by the rapid pace of climate change and environmental overload (an enormous ice shelf broke away in Canada this week, and the Chinese white dolphin was declared extinct). Others of us are aware of the toll of violence in the world. Still others are affected by painful change in our personal lives. Yet even when we are in Egypt (as we are at the end of Genesis), our task is to remember the bones, to bring the coffin to the surface, to find the place of rebirth.

Rabbi Jill Hammer is the director of Tel Shemesh, the co-facilitator of Kohenet, and the author of The Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All Seasons and Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women.

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