What will we carry forward from this year?!

As 2020 draws to a close, I’m sure many of us have been reflecting on some variant of the question: what will we carry forward with us from this year?

As 2020 draws to a close, I’m sure many of us have been reflecting on some variant of the question: what will we carry forward with us from this year?

This is a relevant question to ask with regard to this week’s Torah portion, too, as Parashat Vayechi also concludes our reading of the Book of Genesis. And, in a way, the final verses of the parasha and book (Gen. 50:24-26) help us answer it:

At length, Joseph said to his brothers, “I am about to die. God will surely take notice of you and bring you up from this land to the land that He promised on oath to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.” So Joseph made the sons of Israel swear, saying, “When God has taken notice of you, you shall carry up my bones from here.” Joseph died at the age of one hundred and ten years; and he was embalmed and placed in a coffin in Egypt.

One of my favorite midrashim of all time is a story about Joseph’s bones that appears in the Talmud (Sotah 13a). I’ll save most of it for some other week, but the punchline is this: after the Israelites ultimately leave Egypt, they will wander through the wilderness for forty years. During that time, the midrash contends that they are always carrying two chests around with them, side by side: “echad shel met v’echad shel shechinah” – that is, “one of the dead” (i.e. the coffin that contains Joseph’s bones), and the other of the Divine presence (i.e. the holy ark that holds the tablets of commandments given at Mount Sinai).

It’s a dramatic and striking image… that once the Israelites leave Egypt (just a few weeks from now, in parasha terms) and for the entire rest of the Torah’s narrative, the Israelites will be lugging around not only the ark of the covenant, but also Joseph’s bones in a casket! In doing so, they are fulfilling Joseph's command to his brothers from the end of Genesis: "v'ha'alitem et atzmotai mizeh," "you shall carry up my bones from here." Returning to our original question, then, about what we carry forward with us, we can see that the Israelites’ take-away from the book of Genesis is “atzmot yosef,” the bones of Joseph.

In Hebrew, the phrase atzmot yosef” has an important double meaning. In the first and more obvious sense, it means “the bones of Joseph."   Carrying around a casket filled with an actual skeleton is certainly a representation of death and loss. There’s a heaviness to these bones, both literal and metaphorical! In addition, the Hebrew word “etzem” also can be translated “essence.” In this second sense, what the Israelites carry with them on their journey is Joseph’s essential nature. Perhaps this means his quality of dreaming, or the distillation of the many life-lessons he’s learned as he's matured in his relationships. The double meaning adds a richness to our interpretation of the symbol. As Joseph’s brothers and descendants carry his casket through the wilderness with them, preparing to someday return his bones to the land of Canaan for burial, they are also carrying with them both the heaviness of this loss, and the positive essence of his legacy.

As 2020 ends, I see a parallel. I think we will forever carry with us “atzmot ha-shanah,” in both senses of the phrase: the “bones of the year” and the “essence of this year."

We will carry the “bones of the year” – the skeleton of 2020 in a casket – because we will forever be reminded of the loss of life associated with this time. We have all lived this chapter of our lives in the valley of the shadow of death, with social isolation and every small decision we make feeling fraught. Even after we leave the Egypt of the pandemic, we will be weighed down by the heaviness of the dramatic consequences – now laid bare for all to see – of our society’s systemic racism and harsh inequalities, as well as by the vulnerability of our American democracy. All of this lies in the casket of loss that will accompany us.

At the same time, we will soon carry with us many positive take-aways that made up the “essence of the year,” too. These include new-found discoveries about our own inner strength and resilience: as individuals, as communities, and as a society. Each of us will carry new skills and knowledge, the distillation of our learning and life experiences. In this time, we have learned how to bake sourdough loaves, and how to connect with loved ones across distance. We have begun to commit to all the work we now know we must do in order to truly guard the lives of all of our fellow human beings and also our planet. We will be forever changed in some ways we can’t possibly know completely yet while we are still here in Egypt, but the essence of this year will surely make us who we will become.

Joseph, in the final verses of Genesis, foresees that life in Egypt will get darker and harder for his family first, before they arrive at the hopeful future that will surely lie beyond. For us too, as we stand on the precipice of calendar year 2021, we can hear the warnings, of epidemiologists and of president-elect Biden, that the coming months will represent the most difficult chapter yet of the pandemic. But, someday, hopefully soon, we too will emerge and break free of the constraints of Egypt. When we do, we will certainly carry with us the atzamot – both the burdensome bones and the positive essence of this dramatic experience – so that they might offer us guidance and warning, wisdom and strength as we continue on our way.

My prayer for us, as we bring the dramatic and difficult year of 2020 to a close, is the same one we traditionally recite as we finish reading each book of Torah. Chazak chazak v’nitchazek,” “Be strong, be strong, and may we be strengthened.” It’s been one hell of a year, but we will move forward with strength, carrying so much with us into the future!

See you in 2021 (and in the Book of Exodus) next week,

Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum