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The Essential Bones of Joseph

Passover (seventh day) (Exodus 13:17-15:26 )

by Rabbi Abba Wagensberg

Greetings from the holy city of Jerusalem!

This week, as there is no regular Torah reading, we will discuss the seventh day of Passover, known in Hebrew as "Shevi'i shel Pesach."

Historically, this day celebrates the Jewish people's crossing of the Red Sea, and every year, it corresponds to the sixth day of the Omer. The sefirah, or Kabbalistic energy, of this sixth day is called "yesod she'b'chesed" - literally, "foundation of kindness." (Chesed - kindness - is the energy of the whole first week of the Omer, and each day expresses a different aspect of it.) What is the connection between the sefirah of the day and the event it commemorates?

The verse dramatically describes the crossing of the Sea as, "The ocean saw and fled" (Psalms 114:3). The Midrash (Bereishit Raba 87:1) wonders what exactly the ocean saw that caused it to split. The Midrash answers, "[It saw] the bones of Yosef." Yosef is known throughout Jewish writings as "Yosef the Tzaddik." We are taught (Proverbs 10:25) that "A tzaddik is the foundation (yesod) of the world." If a tzaddik is the foundation of the world, and Yosef is called "Yosef the Tzaddik," Yosef is therefore associated with the quality of foundation (yesod). We noted above that the sefirah of the seventh day of Passover is called YESOD she'b'chesed. We can connect all these ideas if we understand that in the merit of YESOD (Yosef), God performed the great CHESED (kindness) of splitting the Sea for us.

But one question still remains. What was it about Yosef that caused the Sea to split in his merit?

We could suggest that Yosef's fundamental strength was his ability to counteract nature. When Yosef was 17 years old, working as a servant in Egypt, his master Potiphar's wife repeatedly tried to seduce him. Through tremendous effort (described in Sotah 36b), Yosef managed to withstand this temptation. According to the natural way of the world, it would have been impossible for a 17-year-old boy to reject the persistent advances of an attractive woman. Yet Yosef went against the natural order and prevented himself from succumbing. Thus, it was in the merit of Yosef, who counteracted nature, that God counteracted nature when He split the Sea for the Jewish people.

We might still have another question. The Midrash explained that the Sea fled after seeing Yosef's bones. But the Talmud teaches (Baba Batra 17a) that the bodies of righteous people do not decay after death! The phrase "Yosef's bones" (in Hebrew, "atzmot Yosef") certainly seems to imply that Yosef's body decayed! How can we resolve this difficulty?

The word "etzem" (bone) in Hebrew also means "essence." We could therefore suggest that the phrase "atzmot Yosef" (Yosef's bones) in the Midrash is also hinting to "atz'miut Yosef" (Yosef's essence).

This interpretation will deepen our understanding of the verse (Exodus 13:19) where we learn that Moses took "atzmot Yosef" with him before the Jews left Egypt. Although Moses literally carried Yosef's remains out of Egypt, he also took along Yosef's essence: the willingness to break nature in order to carry out God's will. Moses, as the leader of the nation, represented the attitude of the Jewish people as a whole, who were prepared to counteract nature if the situation required. Thus, we can understand the verse, "The ocean saw and fled," to mean that not only was Yosef's essence revealed at the splitting of the Sea, but that Yosef's ability to go against nature was also manifest in Moses and in the entire Jewish people.

The verse (Psalms 80:2) tells us, "God leads His flock, Yosef." We see from here that God's flock - the Jewish people - are called "Yosef." When we reflect the attitude that Yosef stood for, we are all called Yosefites.

This year, on the seventh day of Passover, may we begin to understand what it means to represent Yosef the Tzaddik. May we cultivate a willingness to change ourselves even when it is not the natural or comfortable or easy thing to do, and in that merit, may all the seas of challenge in the world split before us, speedily in our days.

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