01/22/2013 11:56 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Exodus 13:17-17:16: Unbroken Bones

It was dead of night when Moses informed the Israelites that they had to flee Egypt. Despite every promise, prophecy, plague and negotiation, it was still possible that Pharaoh could change his mind. Even simple bread did not have time to rise -- that's where matzo comes from. And there was no time to pack either. The Israelites grabbed their people and whatever they could carry, and away they went.

This week's Torah portion, Beshalach (Exodus 13:17-17:16), explores choices a community facing dramatic change must make about what it will carry towards its new reality. Two very different choices emerge for the Israelites.

First, the Israelites carry the past.

Not long after the Israelite journey out of Egypt had begun -- the Egyptian army at his back and an entire nation awaiting his command -- Moses stood on the banks of the Nile, desperately seeking Joseph's bones. After 400 years of slavery the Israelites were on the cusp of freedom, but like a traveler who has misplaced his passport while a taxi waits outside, the Israelites cannot find the proof of identity they need to cross the border.

Recall that Jacob's children had made an oath to their brother Joseph -- the same brother they had left for dead as a young man -- to take his remains with them if they or their descendants ever found a way out of Egypt (Genesis 50: 24-26). An array of traditions from Late Antiquity fill in the gaps of a typically laconic biblical account about the search for these bones.

The Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael claims that Serach bat Asher, a sole survivor from the age of Joseph, making her hundreds of years old, revealed to Moses that the bones had been hidden in the Nile itself. Moses threw a magical pebble into water in order to rouse his ancestor. "Joseph! Joseph!" he cried, "The moment the Creator has promised for our redemption has arrived, but if you don't show yourself now we will break our oath and leave without you." Then a metal casket with Joseph's bones rose to the surface, and the Israelites carried it out of Egypt.

These bones represent a witness and protector from the past demanding to be remembered as an integral part of a leap into the future. The past, like bones in a body, provides a basic structure and form so that a person -- or in this case a people -- has the capacity to move as one. From a philological perspective, bones in Hebrew are called atzamot. Etzem, the singular form of the word "bone," shares the same semantic root as the term for "self" in Hebrew, as in atzmi in first person singular or atzmeinu in the first person plural.

While it is easy to get lost in the modularity and double entendre of biblical Hebrew, this kind of creative thinking about the language of the Bible has been a rich source of interpretative meaning for thousands of years. Here the relationship between the words for "self" and "bone" teaches that a community cannot not fulfill its obligations to the future without the carrying structure provided by its old self into the new world it is entering.

Soon after the miraculous return of Joseph's bones by the Nile, the Israelites encountered more water -- always a symbol of depth and change. This time it was the Sea of Reeds, or the Red Sea that stood in their way. Raising his arms and parting the sea so that the entire nation could move through it, Moses conducted a kind of national birth in which human servitude to Egyptian masters was washed away. Slavery was replaced by servitude to the divine that the Israelites wrestled with and ultimately accepted in the desert on their way to the Promised Land.

What they carried at this moment of a second miracle by the water was the antithesis of the physicality of Joseph's bones. Led by Miriam, Moses and Aaron's sister, they carried a tune.

The Song of the Sea (Exodus 15: 1-18) is an ecstatic communal celebration of redemption. The Israelites proclaim in song the power of the divine and their allegiance to a master reflecting power, mystery and fear beyond anything they have ever known. For better or for worse, this is the force that will escort them into the future. A song of praise carries them to their destiny as much as they carry the song.

A tradition from Tractate Sota in the Babylonian Talmud offers a slightly different version of the story of Joseph's bones from version of the Mekhilta mentioned previously. Sota suggests a final scene integrating the core lessons of the bones and the song.

In this version the Israelites carried two caskets on their journey. One held the "shekhina" - roughly translated as the earthly presence of the divine. This probably means that they were carrying the Tabernacle, which served as the physical focal point of the Israelite religion (and a precursor to the Temple) or the tablets of the Ten Commandments. The other casket held Joseph's bones. Passersby would ask: "How can you carry a casket of the dead next to the something divine?" The Israelites replied: "What is carried in this one was made possible by what is carried in the other."

The structure of the gritty human past balances the power of the ethereal divine future. One cannot exist without the other. A community facing immense change like the Israelites and almost no time to make choices about how to prepare for it cannot resort to extremes. It needs both human and the divine consciousness. Humility and ecstatic celebration. The bones of finite human reality and the unseen force of the Creator. By carrying both seen and unseen, human and divine, and profane and holy, the Israelites are able to find the promising but difficult beginning of a long path toward becoming a sacred community.

ON Scripture -- The Torah is a weekly Jewish scriptural commentary, produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks and Hebrew College. Thought leaders from the United States and beyond offer their insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.