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    Leaving Egypt

    Egyptians drowning in the sea, Venice Haggadah, 1609

    What a song of triumph was sung by Moses and the people of Israel after crossing the sea on dry land! It is one of the greatest works of Biblical poetry.

    That God worked a miracle for the Israelites is evident. With the pursuing Egyptians behind them and the forbidding waters ahead, they were literally between the devil and the deep blue sea.

    Yet the wind blew strongly, creating a path through the sea that enabled the people to cross and they were at last safe and free and able to move into the future.

    The Midrash asks what merit they had accumulated to earn their miraculous deliverance.

    The answer is found in the Torah’s remark that whilst the rest of the people were busily organising themselves for their departure and equipping themselves with whatever material assets they could carry, Moses went off on a mission of his own. He was looking for the remains of Joseph, who had passed away in Egypt so long before.

    It was an exciting task, because ascertaining the whereabouts of the remains required detective work. Finally successful, Moses “took the bones of Joseph with him” Ex 13:19).

    The story of the miracle at the sea is told poetically in the Book of Psalms, which declares, “The sea looked and fled” (Psalm 114:6).

    What, ask the sages, was seen by the water, which impelled it to turn back? Their answer is, “It saw the remains of Joseph”.

    The sea was unimpressed by the baggage the Israelites were carrying, but once it saw what Moses had with him, there was no longer any hesitation. The waters parted and the people crossed the seabed to freedom.

    Joseph, of course, was known as the tzaddik, the righteous one. Moses had the leader’s instinct to recognise that with Joseph’s tradition of righteousness, the people would have a guide to help them to become a people with a purpose.

    Had the bones of Joseph been left behind, there may have been an implication that mere physical freedom would enable the Israelites to muddle through. But being accompanied by the principles and traditions of their ancestors would be a far better guarantee that they would make something of their unfolding history.

    The last half-century of Jewish rebuilding has taught us the same lesson. The sense of relief at leaving the horror of the Holocaust behind was indescribable.

    But the survivors, with rare exceptions, knew they had to bring the metaphorical bones of their ancestors with them in order to ensure that not only would they live, but also they would live as Jews – so that the dry bones would take on new life, and the future would be imbued with a purpose.

    That is why any occasion or memorial that recalls the Holocaust must not only record the tragedy but also acknowledge the triumph of the reconstruction of Jewish life and the new strength that the bones of Joseph have brought to Judaism in so many places.

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