Global Jewish Reflections is a recurring feature highlighting the spiritual wisdom of rabbis, Jewish educators, and others from around the JDC world.
I’m not a great packer. I always bring too much, and somehow also never the right things. Packing is always last-minute, and chaotic. Inevitably, there will be a breakdown in the middle of packing. Where is my raincoat? Where did I store the wall adapters for the international outlets? How many pairs of socks is too many pairs of socks?
I imagine that for the ancient Israelites, the eve of the Exodus from Egypt looked something like this moment. “What do I bring?” “What do I leave behind?” The Torah tells us that in these final hours, the Israelites rushed around, packing and preparing. They baked bread quickly, leaving it no time to rise.
While they were busying themselves with these tasks, Moses was preparing something else for their departure:
And Moses took with him the bones of Joseph, who had exacted an oath from the children of Israel, saying, “God will be sure to take notice of you: then you shall carry up my bones from here with you.” (Exodus 13:19)
Upon his deathbed in Egypt, our patriarch Joseph asked for the same thing that his father, Jacob, had asked: for his bones one day to be returned to his birthplace in Eretz Yisrael. Moses — who had received the request passed down through the generations — went to find Joseph’s bones before leaving Egypt.
Moses knew of the legendary request, but the exact location of Joseph’s tomb had apparently been forgotten over the years. He was aided in his search, according to Midrashic interpretation, by a mysterious character named Serach bat Asher. Inexplicably, Serach bat Asher’s name appears in the Torah both among the generation that entered Egypt during the time of Joseph, as well as among those who were liberated from Egypt at the time of Moses. Rather than explain this away as textual coincidence or mistake, the rabbis of the Midrash suggest that this (apparently 500 year-old) woman becomes the carrier of tradition and the holder of our narrative. Serach knows where Joseph’s bones are. She brings Moses to the hidden location, and aids him in the sacred exhumation. In doing so, she reveals to Moses the past he was never taught as a child in Pharaoh’s palace.
Moses and Serach bat Asher carried their past into their future. They cannot, Midrash tells us, leave Egypt without having completed this task. Why is it so important? According to one interpretation, it could simply be to honor Joseph’s wishes. According to another, it was a sign of Moses’ piety that among his last acts in Egypt — while everyone else was packing anxiously —- was to busy himself with a mitzvah.
What I hear in this story, however, is that Moses — who grew up without exposure to his ancestral roots —- knew too well the pain of that rootlessness. He knew what it was like to not know your family story. As someone who grew up without knowing three of my grandparents, I know this feeling well. I had no living Jewish grandparents to share stories of the “old country,” and I inherited no secret kugel recipes or Yiddish phrases. The past is something I yearn to carry.
I’ve always thought of Jewish travel as an answer to this yearning. When I travel, I carry more than a raincoat and emergency granola bar. I carry with me the inherited bones and stories and memories of my family and my people, even if I do not know all of the exact details of their lives. Like Moses, who didn’t know Joseph, but still brought him home, I whisper to my ancestors, “It is now safe to live here, in this place where your grandparents fled.” I delight in bringing them with me to the places where Judaism and Jews are thriving, despite the history they lived through.
History continues to be written every day by those whose history was once stolen. Daily life goes on.
In all my travels with JDC Entwine — to Argentina, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and beyond — I have carried with me the stories of my ancestors. But what I have also discovered is that Jewish travel is not just about returning history to those who had lost it. It is also about recognizing how history continues to be written every day by those whose history was once stolen. Daily life goes on.
I’ve come to know how JDC does the holy work of sustaining this daily life. This is not by accident. It is because of the fundamentally important work of JDC to ensure Jews can make a meaningful life wherever they are from and choose to be. It happens because of the classes and programs that create and sustain culture, the meals provided to elders, and the support of communities in the process of Jewish renewal.
It looks different everywhere, but I’ve seen it in the way JDC supported and brought the Jewish community of Buenos Aires together to survive their country’s fiscal crisis. I’ve seen it in the faces of Jewish youth performing Georgian folk dances, in multilingual music classes for seniors, and in university students gathering together to make Shabbat for themselves. Life does more than go on — it thrives.
It would take another entire generation before Joseph’s bones returned to his homeland. In all that time the Israelites wandered, they carried his bones with them. In fact, they carried two chests, one for Joseph’s bones, and the other for the Ten Commandments. A story in the Talmud teaches that strangers passing by would ask, “What is the nature of those two chests?” The Israelites replied: “One is of the dead, and one is the Holy Ark.”
Now, when I travel, I carry two sets of stories. I carry the stories of my family and heritage, and I carry the stories of the living and thriving. They walk side-by-side.
Rabbi Stephanie Crawley is the assistant Rabbi at Temple Micah in Washington, D.C. She has served as a Jewish educator and musician in a variety of capacities in Manhattan, Connecticut, D.C., Jerusalem, Czech Republic, Belarus, Washington, California, and Ohio, and spent a transformative summer as a Spiritual Counselor at Beit T’shuvah, a Jewish addiction treatment center. She is an alumna of the Weitzman-JDC-HUC partnership, having traveled with Entwine to Georgia & Azerbaijan and Argentina. She loves tacos almost as much as she loves Torah,and believes the search for hidden voices in sacred texts helps us find our own. Stephanie is a passionate recycler, book collector, and St. Louis Cardinals fan.