By Rabbi Ilan Glazer
What, and who, do we take with us on our journeys?
Before I leave the house, I make sure that my wallet, car keys and phone are with me. If I’m going out for an errand, I try to make sure I have what I need to accomplish it. But what of our spiritual journeys? What do we take with us as we journey through life?
Our Torah reading, Beshalach, says that as they were leaving Egypt, Moses took the bones of Joseph with him, as Joseph had made his children swear that they would bury him in Israel. According to Midrash, Moses, who had never met Joseph, had to ask Serach, the daughter of Asher, where Joseph’s bones were. She remembered that he was buried in a metal coffin in the Nile, and directed Moses to the site so he could bring the coffin with him.
I’m struck by the notion that even if we ourselves didn’t make the promise, we can fulfill promises made by earlier generations. Moses was under no obligation to transport Joseph’s bones — he never even met Joseph. The Kli Yakar commentary notes that in Exodus 13:18, the Torah says that the children of Israel went up chamushim — armed — from the land of Egypt, and in 13:19 we learn that Moses took Joseph’s bones with him. Why are these two verses next to each other? And what were the Israelites armed with? Some commentators think they were armed with weapons of war. The Kli Yakar thinks they carried the plunder of the land of Egypt with them. Perhaps like too many of our own generation, they assumed that their material wealth would save them (which, to be fair, is understandable given how little they were probably allowed to own as slaves). By carrying Joseph’s bones, Moses was trying to remind the Israelites that it’s not material possessions that will guide us forward, it is the merit of our ancestors, and the values we live by.
The Kli Yakar notes that as they traveled through the wilderness, the Israelites carried not one, but two arks with them, one with the Ten Commandments, and one with Joseph’s bones. I can imagine them being carried side by side, tangible reminders of God’s presence in previous generations and in our own.
How do we carry our ancestors with us as we journey through life? How do we honor those who are no longer with us? As I write this, it is the second yartzeit of our son Shemaryah Zichri, who was stillborn two years ago. Last weekend, we honored him with a concert of original melodies he brought into our lives, and launched “Gam Ki Elech: Turning Our Sorrows Into Song,” the album of his music out into the world. Earlier this week, my wife Sherri and I visited his grave at the cemetery. We said kaddish for him. We have learned in these two years that he is still here with us, even though his body is no longer with us. When we sing his melodies, when we connect with the love he brought into our lives, he is here.
Sometimes we can carry our loved ones with us, and sometimes all we can carry is the memories of who they were and how they lived. For those of us who mourn children, we don’t have a lifetime of memories to hold onto. Like Moses, however, we can still carry our loved ones with us, if not in physical form than in our hearts.
What do we carry with us on our journeys? Which loved one are in our hearts as we grow through life? Moses fulfilled a promise of his ancestors by bringing Joseph’s bones out of Egypt. Perhaps we too can give honor to our loved ones who are no longer with us. Perhaps we can let them guide us, and perhaps, in living the values they embraced, we too can find our way home.
Rabbi Ilan Glazer is the founder of Our Jewish Recovery and leader of the Gam Ki Elech band.