Rabbi Rachel Timoner – 7th Day of Passover

This Shabbat, this seventh day of Pesach, we read from Parashat Beshallach in the Book of Exodus. We read of our people’s departure from Egypt, the pursuit of Pharaoh and his many chariots, the splitting of the Sea of Reeds, and the triumphant Song of the Sea once we’ve crossed to the other side.

Right before these dramatic events are two statements that might almost be missed. First, the parasha opens by telling us that God did not lead the Israelites directly to the Promised Land, but roundabout, by way of the wilderness. Immediately after this we learn that Moses fulfilled an oath made to Joseph by bringing his bones out of Egypt.

The Rabbis are very concerned about the opening idea of the parasha. Why, oh why, would God not bring the Israelites directly to the Promised Land, they wonder? All of the tsuris of the wilderness could have been avoided. The simple explanation given by the text was that God feared that the Israelites, confronted directly by the Phillistines if they were to travel that way, would become afraid of war and return to slavery in Egypt. That seems plausible enough, but the Rabbis are not buying this explanation. In the Midrash they imagine many alternative reasons, including God’s need for a more complete revenge against Pharaoh and his army, including God’s need to show off with an unforgettable miracle (the splitting of the sea), and including the idea that the Canaanites, upon hearing that the Israelites were coming for their land, ripped up all of the vegetation to make it barren, but by the time the Israelites arrived 40 years later it had all grown back.

But my favorite explanation, and the one that aligns best with the rest of what we know about the wilderness experience, is that the journey itself was essential.

Shemot Rabba tells us, “The Holy One Blessed be God did not bring them directly to Eretz Yisrael but by way of the desert, saying: If I bring them there now, immediately each person will seize their field, and each person their vineyard and they will neglect Torah. Rather, I will keep them in the desert forty years, eating manna and drinking from the well, and Torah, learning, will be absorbed in their bodies.”

As difficult as the wilderness journey was, it was necessary. They could not skip it. First of all, there was grieving to be done, grieving Egypt, grieving the only life they ever knew, a life they no longer had. There was struggle and suffering and growing and learning that needed to happen. And the learning had to be absorbed with their whole bodies, not just their heads, not just their hearts. It wouldn’t be right for them to just move on with the work of the world, with tilling their land and harvesting their crops. They had been through a cataclysmic set of events, from slavery to ten plagues to a harrowing escape. They couldn’t arrive until they were ready to arrive.

Then there’s the issue of Joseph’s bones. The Torah reads: Moses took with him the bones of Joseph, who had exacted an oath from the children of Israel, saying “God will be sure to take notice of you: then you shall carry my bones from here with you.”

The Israelites left Egypt carrying bones. According to Ohr HaChayim, Joseph told his brothers that if their descendants would take his bones out of Egypt it would compensate for their act of treachery that put him there in the first place. In other words, they could receive full forgiveness and complete their teshuva posthumously, through the reparative acts of their children. Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael goes further to say that it wasn’t just Joseph’s bones that were taken out of Egypt, but all of the tribal ancestors. And Kli Yakar imagines two beautiful things: that Moses hoped Joseph’s bones would help split the sea because God would remember Joseph’s merit and act on his behalf. And that the bones were placed in an ark and the people carried that ark alongside the ark of the covenant all throughout their journey through the wilderness.

The other day when I called my mom, the call went to voicemail and suddenly, shockingly, it was my father’s voice in my ear. “We can’t come to the phone right now, please leave a message.” His breathing was short and labored. But it was him, so alive sounding. So confusing.

I have his voice recorded in my phone and on one of those old voice memo devices, because I’ve been saving his voice messages for many years in anticipation of this very moment when I imagined I’d want to hear him. But I haven’t listened to any of those recordings since he died. I think I’ve been afraid to fill my space with the fullness of his sound, afraid of what it might stir up in me. So hearing him suddenly was at once unsettling and so sweet.

And there are notes scribbled all around the house from our conversations in his last months. Beautiful things he said, desperate things he said, things I knew I needed to write down and keep. Some are in a notebook by my bed. Some are on my desk. Some are in a little pad in the drawer in the kitchen with the pens and scissors. I came across those notes last week when looking for a blank page to make a grocery list. I pulled them out and read them, and then put them right back hoping that I’d accidentally encounter them again a month or two from now.

I wonder, as the months go on, how it might be different to stumble across those notes, or when I’ll find comfort in listening to my saved voicemails. Not yet.

I wonder if you have notes like that scattered about your house, or a favorite tie or earrings or cologne or a recipe or a love letter or an old birthday card.

We’re all carrying Joseph’s bones out of Egypt, along with the matza on our backs. Hurriedly trying to make our escape from the most acute pain and the discomfort, hoping the bones, the memory and merit of our loved ones, will help God have mercy on us, will make God split the sea to bring us out of the narrow place to a wider, more forgiving terrain. But instead we’re finding ourselves out in a great wilderness, a little lost, a lot confused, wandering here and there, wishing we could go the nearer way to the promised land or back where we came from.

We miss them, the ones we carry with us. The sound of their voice live and in person, along with their warm hands holding ours, along with their kisses and the half smile and the way they’d close their eyes when listening to music. We want to sing to them again. We want to laugh with them again. We want not just old messages, but new ones, we want to tell them all that’s happening, all of it, here, now.

God does not lead us by the nearer way, but roundabout by way of the wilderness. There’s nothing linear in this process of grieving the ones we love. Nothing direct or quick or easy. But it is so very much like a wilderness. Uncomfortable, sometimes unbearable. Sometimes with respites along the way, with shade and water to drink, and even sweet fruit, but always that ache of having lost the life we knew and not yet arriving at that distant beckoning place where we will feel peace again, and contentment.

What is it we need to absorb in our bodies in this great meandering walk of mourning? And how does the ark of memory that we carry guide us toward our destination? Never backward, always forward, my father would say. I will not lead them by the nearer way, lest they return to Egypt, God says. There is no going back, only forward, absorbing what we can with our bodies, learning what we can learn from who they were and how they lived, and who we are because of them, carrying their Torah, the truths that lie inside those memories, negotiating and renegotiating the story of them and of us, readying ourselves for a life without them, for a future with new land to till and crops to harvest, but always with that ark of memory, helping us find our way there.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach.