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 co-exist?
At the beginning of this week’s Parshah we read that Moses himself was occupied with a special mission as the Jews were leaving Egypt. Moses took the bones of Joseph with him.1 Over a hundred years before the great Exodus, Joseph made the Children of Israel swear that they would take him along when they would eventually leave Egypt. As viceroy of Egypt, Joseph could not hope to be buried in Israel when he died, as his father Jacob 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 undertaking that when the time would come and all the Israelites would depart they would take his remains along with them.
And so it was that while everyone else was busy packing up, loading their donkeys, and getting ready for the Great Trek into the Wilderness, Moses himself was busy with this mission, fulfilling the sacred promise made to Joseph generations ago.
Now Joseph was not the only one to be re-interred in the holy land. His brothers, too, were accorded the very same honor and last respects. Yet, it is only Joseph whom the Torah finds it necessary to mention explicitly. Why?
The answer is that Joseph was unique. While his brothers were simple shepherds tending to their flocks, Joseph 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 absolute inspiration.
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, Joseph represented tradition amidst transition. It was possible, he taught the world, to be a contemporary traditionalist. One could successfully straddle both worlds.
Now that they were about to leave Egypt, the Jews were facing a new world order. Gone were slavery and oppression, and in their place were freedom and liberty. During this time of transition, only Joseph could be their role model. They would need his example to show them the way forward into uncharted territory, the new frontier.
That is why the Torah mentions only Joseph as the one whose remains went along with the people. They needed to take Joseph with them so that, like him, they too would make their own transition successfully.
Ever since leaving Egypt, we’ve been wandering. 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 Shabbat you kept in the shtetl 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 Joseph were able to make the transition while remaining committed to tradition.
Democracy and a human-rights culture have made that part of Jewish life somewhat easier, but challenges still abound. In all our own transitions today, may we continue to learn from Joseph.