By Rabbi Yossy Goldman
The test of transition. And Moshe took the remains of Yosef with him (Sh’mos13:19).
They say adapt or die. But must we jettison the old to embrace the new? Is the choice limited to modern or antiquated, or can one be a contemporary traditionalist? Do the past and present ever coexist?
At the beginning of this week’s parashah, we read that Moshe himself was occupied with a special mission as the Jews were leaving Egypt. “And Moshe took the remains of Yosef with him.” Over 100 years before the great Exodus, Yosef made his descendants swear that they would take him along when they would eventually leave Egypt. As viceroy, Yosef could not hope to be buried in Israel when he died as his father Yaakov was. The Egyptians would never tolerate their political leader being buried in a foreign land. But he did make his brethren give him their solemn promise that when the time came and all the Israelites would depart, they would exhume his remains and take him along. And so they did. So it was that while everyone else was busy packing up, loading their donkeys, and getting ready for the great trek into the Wilderness, Moshe himself was busy with this mission, fulfilling the sacred promise made to Yosef generations ago.
Now, according to tradition, Yosef was not the only one to be exhumed and reinterred in the Holy Land. His brothers, too, were accorded the very same honor and last respects. Yet it is only Yosef whom the Torah finds it necessary to mention explicitly.
Why? The answer is that Yosef was unique. While his brothers were simple shepherds tending to their flocks, Yosef was running the affairs of state of the mightiest superpower of the day. To be a practicing Jew while blissfully strolling through the meadows is not that complicated. Alone in the fields, communing with nature and away from the hustle and bustle of city life, one can more easily be a man of faith. But to run a massive government infrastructure as the most high-profile statesman in the land and still remain faithful to one’s traditions, this is not only a novelty; this is nothing less than inspirational.
Thrust as he was from the simple life of a young shepherd boy into the hub of the nation’s capital to juggle the roles of viceroy and Jew, Yosef represented tradition amid transition. It was possible, he taught the world, to be a contemporary traditionalist. One could successfully straddle both worlds.
As they were about to leave Egypt, the Jews were facing a new world order. Gone were slavery and oppression and in were freedom and liberty. During this time of transition, only Yosef could be their role model. Unlike his brothers, he was able to make the transition from meadow to metropolis, from spiritual dreamer to economic strategist. They would need his example to show them the way forward into uncharted territory, the new frontier.
That is why the Torah only mentions Yosef as the one whose remains went along with the people. They needed to take him with them so that, like him, they too would make their own transition successfully. Ever since leaving Egypt, we’ve been wandering through our own wildernesses. And every move has brought with it its own challenges. Whether from Poland to America or Lithuania to South Africa, every transition has come with culture shocks to our spiritual psyche. How do you make a living and still keep the Shabbos you kept in the shtetel when the factory boss says, “Cohen, if you don’t come in on Saturday, don’t bother coming in on Monday either!”?
It was a test of faith that wasn’t at all easy. Many succumbed. But many others stood fast and survived, even flourished. It was the test of transition. And those who modeled themselves on Yosef were able to make that transition while remaining committed to tradition. Democracy and a human-rights culture have made that part of Jewish life somewhat easier, but challenges abound still.
In all our own transitions today, may we continue to learn from Yosef. v
Rabbi Yossy Goldman was born in Brooklyn and was sent in 1976 by the Lubavitcher Rebbe as an emissary to serve the Jewish community of Johannesburg, South Africa. He is Senior Rabbi of the Sydenham Shul and president of the South African Rabbinical Association. His sefer “From Where I Stand: Life Messages from the Weekly Torah Reading” was published by Ktav and is available at Jewish book shops or online at www.ktav.com.