painting of the israelites crossing through the red sea
Painting by Dr. Lidia Kozenitzky via Wikimedia Commons.

Parashat Beshalach: Their Past Is Always Present

Our loved ones may physically pass on, but like Joseph, their presence reverberates in us and in the generations to come.

Commentary on Parashat Beshalach, Exodus 13:17 - 17:16

Parashat Beshalach is filled with striking images: God splitting the Red Sea, Moses striking a rock in his quest to secure water for the thirsty Israelites, and the Egyptians crying in agony over the death of their firstborn children. But another less-noted image calls those who have lost a loved one to attention: As the Israelites prepare to depart Egypt for their journey to the promised land, Moses gathers up the remains of Joseph, personally carrying them for reburial in Israel. 

The roots of this action lie earlier in Genesis, where Joseph makes his sons swear before his death that they will take his bones with them when God redeems them from slavery. Moses remains faithful to this promise generations later. And when Moses himself is denied entry into Israel, the responsibility falls to his successor Joshua. What is the significance of this act of fidelity? Is this centuries-old faithfulness to Joseph’s request only about burying his remains in Israel?

The Torah likely wants us also to consider the deeper significance of what it means to bear the remains of someone who influenced us, regardless of our relationship with them, even if our lives never overlapped with theirs. All of us are a multi-layered mix of those who came before us. None of us are self-made but have imbibed the values of those who recently and more distantly preceded us, even if we can’t identify precisely how they have shaped the people we are today.

Knowing that we carry within us some enduring aspect of those who have predeceased us can be comforting to those of us who have suffered the loss of a loved one. Often, we only realize which of their qualities we have internalized after they have gone. It’s not uncommon after a death to hear people remark on the similarities we share with departed family members. We all bear traces of those who have touched our lives, even if we’re not directly related to them. We may lay their physical remains to rest, but their values, qualities and quirks live on in us. 

Isaac Bashevis Singer, the renowned Jewish novelist, expressed this idea when he wrote: “The dead don’t go anywhere. They are all here. Each man is a cemetery. An actual cemetery in which lies our fathers and mothers, grandmother and grandfather, the wife and the child. Everyone is here all the time.” Singer reminds us that we carry the essence of those we mourn within us. Our loved ones may physically pass on, but like Joseph, their presence reverberates in us and in the generations to come.

This article initially appeared in My Jewish Learning’s Reading Torah Through Grief newsletter on Feb. 2, 2023. To sign up to receive this newsletter each week in your inbox, click here.

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