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Rabbi Dr. Walter Rothschild

This week’s sidra forms the end of the Book of Bereshit, Genesis, and winds up the period of the Patriarchs which commenced with Abraham’s ”call” at the beginning of Chapter 12. In Chapter 49 Jacob dies and in chapter 50 is buried with great honours at the cave of Machpela in Hebron which Abraham had bought as a family tomb when Sarah died, in the land of Canaan (although for some reason they are also somewhere ”across the Jordan” for a while; In chapter 50 Joseph also dies – but is not buried. Indeed, he will be mummified and encoffined and this coffin will then be taken by the Israelites when they leave Egypt over 400 years later, having escaped from slavery – his bones form a link with their past and when he is finally buried – at Shechem, at the end of the Book of Joshua – he will form a link back to Jacob as well, since it was this plot of land which Jacob had first purchased on his own return from Haran. The story 'hangs together’ somehow, if one takes a wider view – all too often we read it only in short disconnected chunks, in weekly portions, and run the risk of losing the overall context. By placing him there the Israelites are also symbolically 'taking ownership’ of their land, placing their ancient, deceased patriarch into its soil.

Joseph’s own death is, in a way, an anti-climax. He has reached 110 years, he has sons, grandsons and even great-grandsons, for it states that he saw Ephraim’s children to the third generation and also the children of Menashe’s son Machir were born while he was alive. (50:23). That is pretty good going! And yet – when it comes to dying, his sons are not mentioned. He does not speak to them, they do not stand by his bed. Instead it is the BROTHERS (actually half-brothers) who are worried and plead with him after Jacob has died, worried that he might now take revenge upon them for their cruelty to him, now that their joint father is dead; and it is to his Brothers that Joseph turns to take of them an oath that they (!!) will carry his bones up to the land God has sworn to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – to their father, grandfather and great-grandfather – when they got the opportunity. Are all these brothers still alive, even though Joseph is the second-youngest of the clan? None are named, nor numbered. It is a bit strange.

So Joseph does not pass on any covenant to his son or sons, for his father Jacob has already done that (48:15-20) – indeed, prioritising the second-born Ephraim before Menashe. We do not read anything more of his wife Osnat the priest’s daughter after their marriage – was bearing just two sons normal for the time, for Egyptians? When and how and where does she die, or get buried, or be mourned? The text tells us nothing. Joseph’s concern is solely with his own remains, and with God’s promise, and with the future of the Israelites, and in this respect indeed he refers to the Covenant, but he does not commission his own son Ephraim to carry it out. Ephraim, of course – unless he accompanied his father to his grandfather’s funeral – had never left Egypt, had grown up with an Egyptian mother and an Egyptian priest for a grandfather, had never seen the land of which Joseph speaks, whereas the brothers had been shepherds there. Four centuries or so later it will be necessary for God to call upon the only other Israelite of his generation who has left the land of Egypt, learned another language, experienced the desert, developed leadership as opposed to labouring skills….)

Does he know – he, the man who has dreams and visions and can tell the future of a king, a country, a butler and a baker – also know what will happen to the Israelites after his death? Can he foretell the forthcoming enslavement and persecution, the murder of the new-born children, the disposal of the weak and useless? What relationship does he have with God, can he not pray to God to change the decree? Is the slavery of the Israelites in some form a consequence of his own earlier enslavement, a bad time they will have to go through if they are to become a truly covenantal people? In other words – is there really a Plan, a purpose in what is to come?

We focus in Judaism very much upon the transformational moments of the Exodus from Egypt, the Liberation from Slavery, with the help of a God who has sent his messenger, Moses, to argue with Pharaoh, to give signs, to work miracles, and later to receive the Commandments. We derive much of our moral teachings from the command to remember, remember and always remember what it felt like to be powerless and persecuted, despised, defiled, derided, to be enslaved – and to be liberated. In Shemot, in Exodus, once God has responded to the cry that God hears from the suffering Israelites, God is ever-present. God speaks, God does, God arranges, God influences. But in this end of Genesis, God is only a vague idea mentioned by an old dying man.

Bereshit begins with cosmic magnificence – ”In the Beginning, God made the heavens and the earth, the entire universe, and life itself!” The book dribbles to an end with an old man, the great-grandson of Abraham, being put into a coffin in Egypt. ”Not with a bang, but a whimper”. In a way, the covenant dies with him, because even though theoretically Ephraim has been handed it by Jacob, he does not really know what this means, what his responsibilities might be. How could he? What has he ever experienced of God? He has had no dreams, no visions, no commands, no encounters. What could Jacob even have told him? ”Here, my favoured Grandson, is the promise that God gave us a wonderful land, a land flowing with milk and honey. By the way, your grandmother died giving birth to your uncle Benjamin, and we are here right now because there was a dreadful famine there…..” That would be a bit inconsistent and contradictory! We do not get further genealogical lists or family trees. We do not even know whether Ephraim and Menashe marry Israelite girls, cousins, in order somehow to be absorbed into their father’s tribe, or Egyptian ones; nor how they raise the children which Joseph sees. The covenant ”gets lost” and when Moses comes to the Israelites in the next book, the Israelites have little idea what he is talking about. They have neglected circumcision. They have kept no symbols of their promised land, they have forgotten where it is or how it looks, they have no relics of the crops there or stones from there. All they have, in a tangible way, will be Joseph’s coffin and his bones.

What do WE have to link us to our people’s past, and indeed to the Jewish Future? A pile of bones, of corpses, that bind us to what used to be? Memories of fratricidal betrayal? Memories of imprisonment or homelessness or exile? A vision of a land, a future where there will be not just milk and honey but nourishment and sweetness for all, a land built on justice and gratitude? Plans for where we ourselves want to be buried – whenever that may be appropriate? How do We look forward and on what are our visions based? And where will our bones be put to rest? This book ends – but we know the story will continue in the next volume. This is – despite everything that happens there -a form of comfort!

Rabbi Dr. Walter Rothschild