Community Rabbi Corner, Jan. 10, 2020

Rabbi David Bockman
Temple Beth Sholom of the Pascack Valley
Park Ridge, NJ
Parashat Vayechi

We come this week to the end of the prehistory of the Israelites, the end of the book of Genesis, with a line that should shock us to our core: Joseph reached the age of 110, and they embalmed him and placed him in a sarcophagus in the land of Egypt. Unlike Moses, who reaches the full lifespan of 120 years, Joseph only makes it to 110. But they embalm him (embalming - not the way Jews treat a dead body, certainly!) He needs to be mummified, arguably, to be able to last the hundreds of years in Egypt until God and Moses rescue the Israelites, at which time they will fulfill their promise to Joseph by taking him in his coffin back home to the ancestral burial grounds in Canaan.
And this is where we discover the payoff to the strange treatment of the body of Joseph: just as he was placed in an aron (Hebrew for closet or casket), his remains will be joined along the way through the desert by another aron, one that carries the tablets Moses receives at Mount Sinai. Two aronot, two caskets or boxes, one filled with stones and one filled with bones, but both of them leading the Israelites from slavery to freedom, from subjugation to holiness!  Even before we have a book of the Torah, we learn some of the Jewish values emphasized at GOA: kavod (respect), tikkun ha-olam (repairing the brokenness of the world through – among other things – acts of lovingkindness), and halacha and mitzvot (fulfilling Jewish obligations wholeheartedly).  Fulfilling our obligations to Joseph as we leave Egypt teaches us its own sort of Torah.
Before there is even a Torah at Sinai, our people find their way on the path towards the holy land by paying attention to the holiness of the individual, perhaps representing the inherent dignity that we can learn from each and every human life. At our school, we are privileged to learn that these two sorts of Torah are not in conflict with each other, but travel side by side as twin lodestars that orient us in the path we take toward our destiny. Whatever the starting point of the journey was (brought down from a mountaintop shrouded in mystery or beginning in the most assimilated  non-Jewish societal practices), it is through the ongoing relationship with the community, with the Jewish people, that these two aronot teach us, inspire us, and ultimately carry us home to our destiny.
Shabbat Shalom!