The conclusion of the book of Bereshith sets the stage for all of the remaining history of the Jewish people. Jacob and his family have settled in the land of Egypt, and live under the most favorable of circumstances. Their son and brother, Joseph, is the de facto ruler of the country that has provided them with prosperity. However, Joseph himself warns them that the situation is only temporary and that there are troubled days ahead.
He tells them that they will leave the land of Egypt, whether they wish to or not, and that when they leave they should remember him and take his bones with them, to be buried in the land of Israel, the home from which he was so brutally taken when he was about 17 years old.
I would imagine that the family of Jacob, when hearing these predictions of Joseph, were amazed, and probably were unable to fathom how their situation could change so drastically from greatness and wealth to slavery and persecution.
The Jewish people are by nature an optimistic people. We always believe that somehow things will turn out well, no matter how bleak the present circumstances may appear to be. Yet, only by remembering Joseph’s words would the eventual redemption from Egyptian bondage be realized. Joseph’s warnings would accompany them with his remains through the 40-year sojourn in the desert of Sinai. It would remind them to be aware of the historical dangers they would always have to face.
The conditions under which Jews have lived in exile and in the diaspora for millennia have always varied and fluctuated. But the basic message was that we were we were not really at home. We continually ignored warning signs, and somehow believed that things would get better. Ignoring the warnings of Joseph, many times in our history we doomed ourselves to tragedy and disaster.
If Joseph, the viceroy of Egypt, warned us that Egypt is not our home, then that message could not have been clearer to Jews in the coming millennia. But as the story of Egypt and the Jews unfolds in the book of Shemot, the majority of Jews forgot Joseph’s message. And it remained only for Moshe himself to bring Joseph’s bones out if Egypt for eventual burial in the Land of Israel.
The Torah will record for us that later Egyptian pharaohs and the Egyptian nation forgot about Joseph and his great accomplishments. The ironic tragedy is that much of the Jewish people as well forgot about Joseph and his message to them. In the annals of Jewish history, this forgetfulness on the part of Jews has often been repeated – and always with dire consequences. The story of Joseph and of the Jewish settlement in Egypt provides the prototype for all future Jewish history. We always need to ask ourselves what Joseph would have to say about our current Jewish world. This is worthy of contemplation.
Rabbi Berel Wein