At the stroke of midnight, the plague of the firstborn struck Egypt. Pharaoh rushed into the night, frantically looking for Moses and Aaron. He pleaded with them to take their people and depart Egypt immediately.
But Moses refused to hurry. The people would need time to pack and prepare. They would need provisions for their journey. Perhaps the Egyptians would be so kind as to supply them with vessels and garments?
The Egyptians opened their storehouses and bestowed all kinds of gifts upon their former slaves. Jews spent the night racing to and fro, amassing wealth. The poorest Jew was to leave Egypt with ninety donkeys loaded with gold and silver.(1)
It was not only material wealth that the Jews were garnering. Embedded within the gold and silver of Egypt were the “sparks of holiness” that eagerly awaited redemption. These redeemed sparks would constitute the spiritual harvest of the Egyptian exile, in fulfillment of the divine promise to Abrahamthat his children of would depart Egypt with “great wealth.”(2)
One man, however, did not join the frenzy.
Moses was looking for Joseph.
One hundred and thirty-nine years earlier, Joseph had predicted the coming redemption. He had asked his people to swear that when the time came, they would gather his remains and carry them to the Land of Israel for burial. (3)
The children of Israel, busy divesting Egypt of its treasure, all but forgot their sacred oath. Moses remembered and set out in search of Joseph’s grave. He visited the venerable Serach, daughter of Asher, one of the few people alive who could remember Joseph’s final hours. (4)
Serach informed Moses that Joseph had been placed in a metal casket, which had been dropped into the Nile. (5) She led him to the Nile and pointed out the very spot. Moses threw a stone into the river at that spot and called out to Joseph:
“The time of which you prophesied has finally arrived. G‑d has fulfilled his promise, and your children are now redeemed. Except for our responsibility to you, we are all ready to leave. Please arise to the surface and we will commence our exodus.”
The night was filled with opportunity. The righteous alongside the wicked, the wise alongside the foolish, and the leaders alongside the lay people — all were running about collecting Egyptian valuables and the spiritual rewards they embodied. The only truly wise man was Moses. He forfeited the opportunity to amass physical and spiritual treasures, and went to fulfill a special, once-in-a-lifetime mitzvah.
The Midrash concludes: Jacob was honored that Joseph, the most powerful man in Egypt, personally took care of his funeral and burial. Joseph was rewarded in kind, when Moses, the greatest Jew in history, assumed the task of caring for Joseph’s remains. And who buried Moses? G‑d himself. (8)
In all the wealth of earth and in all the rewards of heaven, there is nothing greater than a mitzvah.
5. The Egyptians did this for two reasons:
- The Nile was their source of sustenance, and they hoped that Joseph’s sacred presence would bring it blessing;
- Knowing that Jews were bound by their oath to carry his remains to Israel, the Egyptians resolved to bury him in a manner they hoped was unsalvageable. In this way, they hoped to keep the Jewish people indefinitely enslaved in Egypt. (Talmud, Sotah 13a; Devarim Rabbah, Parshat Berachah.)