So G‑d turned the People toward the way of the wilderness to the Sea of Reeds... Moses took the bones of Joseph with him, for he had firmly adjured the Children of Israel saying, "G‑d will surely remember you, and you shall bring up my bones from here with you." They journeyed from Succot, and encamped at Etham, at the edge of the Wilderness. (13, 18-20)
Rabbi Baruch HaLevi Epstein, zt"l, in his work Tosfot Bracha, observes that the passage regarding the taking of Joseph's bones out of Egypt seems to be misplaced. For the passage that precedes it and the ones following it describe the trek of our ancestors as they leave Egypt for Israel. The removal of Joseph's bones from Egypt, according to Rabbi Epstein, should rightly appear after the description of these travels.
To answer this question, Rabbi Epstein refers us to the Midrash's comment on the verse "the sea saw and fled and the Jordan turned backward" (Psalms 114, 3). The Midrash asks, "What did the sea see that caused it to flee and allow the Jews to pass through on dry land?" And the Midrash answers, "It saw the casket of Joseph," that is, the bones of Joseph which Moses brought out of Egypt. Since the previous passage speaks of G‑d taking the People by way of the Wilderness to the Sea of Reeds, the passage concerning Joseph's bones, in light of the Midrash's explanation, is in fact a part of the progress of the Jewish People on their trek to Israel. For had not the Sea of Reeds miraculously parted to allow them passage and then returned to its normal flow entrapping and killing the Egyptian army, the Jewish People would have perished on its banks. Thus the Midrash qualifies the removal of Joseph's bones as an integral element in the journey of our ancestors from slavery to freedom.
While this insight of Rabbi Epstein's is quite interesting and does answer the question he posses, it nevertheless does not shed any light upon the more fundamental issue at hand. Why did the sea split when it saw the bones of Joseph? Surely the majestic sight of the Jewish nation fleeing the bondage of Egypt led by the greatest of all Prophets, Moses, should have sufficed to prompt the sea to play its role in the salvation of Israel and the consequent consecration of the Jewish People to its vocation at Sinai - to be an Am Kadosh, a Holy Nation, exemplars of G‑d's Will on earth. Why does the mere sighting of the bones of an ancient Jewish leader change the course of human history?
When I entered the Rabbinate, one of the most important tasks I was expected to perform was to preside at funerals. Required to give the oration, the eulogy, I have never felt indifferent to the pain of the mourners. It is known in my own family that my Uncle, Rabbi Meyer Finkelstein, z"l, would often times return from officiating at a funeral physically spent as the pain of the mourners was too much for him to bear. Yet, to be a practicing Rabbi, a Congregational Rabbi, one must steel himself to the task of officiating at funerals with the fervent hope that his few words of eulogy bring comfort to the family and honor to the deceased.
Jewish funerals have changed dramatically over the years. As a child, I recall attending funerals in my mother's family. We were all dressed in our best clothes. Funerals were a full day event. First, we had to travel by subway to Second Avenue in Manhattan to Schwartz's Funeral Home. My mother often told me that the original Mr. Schwartz had come to America from Romania with her father, my grandfather. Upon arrival, we would meet all my mother's cousins and extended family. The Chapel would be filled to overflowing. After the service, we would travel in procession to Staten Island to the Itzchak Meyer and Priva Family Society's section in Baron Hirsch Cemetery (our family society founded by my great-grandmother's brother, Rabbi Israel Konovitz, z"l). This was before the construction of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. The procession had to travel by way of the Staten Island Ferry. The Funeral Directors, who were as well our distant cousins, had a monumental task before them in getting the procession, which usually consisted of at least twenty cars, onto one Ferry. Invariably, an argument arose between the Ferry crew and the Funeral Directors, which resulted in the crew receiving an honorarium of sorts so that they would be more accommodating.
For my brother and myself, the Ferry ride was a welcomed break in an otherwise unintelligible day for a child. The adults would get out of their cars. Only the mourners would remain in the rented limousine. We would watch the parade of Mishpacha as they walked about on the Ferry's decks. My mother would point out the notables, regaling my brother Ken and myself with vignettes about each one.
Upon arrival at the Cemetery, the internment service would commence. Each person in attendance took his turn in placing some earth in the grave. It was a stirring sight for a little boy. I could feel the heaviness of the air around us as it was filled with palpable pain. The mourners, often in tears, would then pass among the attendees to be offered the traditional verse of condolence. We would then return to our cars for the trip back to Brooklyn.
Now it was off to the Shiva home where a huge spread (the high point of the day for the children) was awaiting us. If we were lucky, it would be deli with the mandatory Dr. Brown's Cel-Ray soda on hand to assist in the digestion of the Romanian Pastrami sandwiches. The extended family would eat with the mourners, sharing with them their pain and giving them what support they could in their hour of tribulation. The youngsters would, for the most part, play with each other. If it was a warm day, we were directed to the street. When we returned, the room was hot from all those present; there was a noticeable lack of sufficient oxygen. The men would offer the afternoon prayers and we would depart for home.
The mourners would observe the seven-day Shiva period. Three days after the Funeral, my mother would take us to the mourner's home to pay our respects. Now a bit quieter, individuals would wax poetic about the life of the deceased, sharing with the mourners events and happenings in the deceased individual's life. At times this resulted in heated debates, as various family members recalled events of the past in different ways. One could see in the faces of the mourners a bit of change. They were more responsive and seemed to receive a great deal of peace from the family and friends who were coming and going. This was the funeral of yesteryear.
Today things are quite different. Many opt for a Graveside funeral at which, more often than not, the attendees consist solely of the immediate family and some close relatives and friends. The style of dress is optional - jeans and shorts in the summer months are not uncommon sights. The Funeral Director must be counted in the Minyan so that Kaddish may be recited. Sometimes his presence is not sufficient. Other Jews who may be visiting the cemetery or had attended another service are requested to help make the ten-man quorum for the Minyan. Shiva is a visitation for a few hours after the internment.
Why the radical change? People have no time. Their every moment is wrapped up in the here and now. How can they leave their job for a funeral? Who can waste seven days of their life sitting Shiva? We need to get it over with... and quickly.
And yet, when the Jews left Egypt, it was none other than Moses who took upon himself the responsibility of removing Joseph's remains from their temporary grave in Egypt, so that the wishes of this former leader of the Jewish People could be fulfilled. The Reed Sea marveled at the fact that such Derech Eretz, such respect for former generations, existed among humankind. Faced with a myriad of tasks as he shepherded the ancient Jews from slavery to Sinai, Moses, nevertheless, found the time to perform Chesed Shel Emes, the ultimate righteous deed, by showing proper respect to the remains of Joseph. Amidst the tumult, amidst the anxiety and fear that must have filled the Israelites as they left their hundreds of years of bondage for an unsure future, guided by an "Egyptian" nobleman and a G‑d they knew little of, there was, nevertheless, exhibited through Moses, a reverence for a former leader of our People who, as did Moses, literally saved the Jewish People from certain destruction.
We need to find time in our lives to exhibit deference to our past. We need to glean from our forefathers the wisdom of our People and of our Faith. We need to find time to comfort and support our fellow in times of pain and suffering. We need to take a hard and close look at the actions of the greatest of our leaders and Prophets, Moses, as we consider that which is valuable in our lives. For the Jew, the past, our history and our predecessors, are the building blocks for our future. History, proper respect for and understanding of the lives of our predecessors, deserves our time and our concern.
I know that the funerals of the past, which I experienced so many years ago, have left an indelible mark upon my conscience and my understanding of my existence as yet another link in the chain of the Jewish People as it traverses the pages of history bringing dignity and meaning to human experience.