There is a fascinating reference to a death long since past in this week’s parasha. The book of Genesis ends with Joseph extracting a promise from his people that they will ‘carry [his] bones up from here’ (Genesis 49) when they are eventually redeemed from Egypt. Fast forward through all the oppression and plagues to a time the Israelites are ready to leave their place of confinement and Tosefta Sota depicts the Children of Israel raiding the booty of the nation while Moses frantically searches for Joseph’s bones, knowing that he can’t leave without them. Other Midrashic tales suggest the Egyptians know the Jews can’t leave without Joseph’s bones and so they bury them in a lead casket in the Nile. Moses stands before the Nile and calls out for his ancestor, ‘Joseph, Joseph the hour you spoke of, when you told us we would be redeemed has come.’ In Midrash Shemot Rabba Moses even quotes back the verse from Genesis at Joseph, and the coffin rises like some Arthurian legend. The children of Israel leave with Moses, as the Bible states ‘carrying the bones of Joseph’ (Exodus 13).
It’s a cute narrative showing the Jews besting their foes, yet again, but it also teaches an important lesson about the treatment of ‘bones’ the last physical remnant of those we have loved and lost. Reading the Bible once a person dies – ‘goes down to Sheol’ – there is nothing much there. Ideas about heaven or re-incarnation or apocalyptic re-birth develop post Biblically. But there is still tremendous attention paid to the importance of burial and care for a body, even one deprived of life. Rabbinically the body of a deceased echoes with its once-tenured soul and the relatives of a deceased remain in relationship. There is, in rabbinic Judaism, a sense that a life is judged on its end, but that the judgement is ‘spread out’ against the family. ‘For all of the first week the sword is drawn; for the first month it shakes, and it does not return to its sheath until twelve months.’ (Bereshit Rabbah 100.) We owe a duty of care to our deceased.
I’ve been reflecting on this reading of a proposal of the burial societiy used by some of our sister communities in the Assembly of Masorti Synagogues. The Joint Jewish Burial Society has purchased land adjoining the Cheshunt Cemetery and are installing there facilities for performing Taharah – the ritual preparation of a body for burial. They are also making available a possibility for a woodland internment, which I know some members have spoken to me about. They are even looking at providing a separate (and separated) space within the new grounds for burial of Jews and their non-Jewish partners. Anyone interested in these developments is invited to contact me. The rest of us should, as the Rabbis teach, count our days carefully and tend compassionately with both the memories and the earthly remnants of those we have loved and lost.