Carrying Our Bones: Reflection from Rabbi Corey Helfand

It’s always hard to know how to start a journey. This week, along with 20 colleagues and Jewish professionals from the DMV, we went back in time to walk the story of our country. A story of pain, trauma, victimization, dehumanization. A story that began in g’nut and hoshech (degradation and darkness) in search of orah and herut (light and freedom). In the first moments of entering the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, I saw the waves of the Atlantic Ocean, where two million of the 12 million slaves lost their lives on the treacherous voyage. The horror of so many men, women, and children who lost their dignity, their humanity, and eventually their lives. Those who drowned, were tortured, imprisoned, lynched, and burned. They are stories that are often forgotten, untold, or even lost. And so, I realized, that to begin this trip, to find a way of connecting the past to the present in search of a reimagined future, I need to start with the bones of those who came before me. 

Ironically, that’s exactly how the Exodus from Egypt begins. The path from darkness to light, and slavery to freedom, starts with Moses making good on a promise.  

 וַיִּקַּ֥ח מֹשֶׁ֛ה אֶת־עַצְמ֥וֹת יוֹסֵ֖ף עִמּ֑וֹ כִּי֩ הַשְׁבֵּ֨עַ הִשְׁבִּ֜יעַ אֶת־בְּנֵ֤י יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר פָּקֹ֨ד יִפְקֹ֤ד אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶתְכֶ֔ם וְהַעֲלִיתֶ֧ם אֶת־עַצְמֹתַ֛י מִזֶּ֖ה אִתְּכֶֽם׃ 

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) The Exodus began by acknowledging the bones of those who had perished. A slavery that started when a new Pharaoh arose who did not know Joseph.

The midrash (rabbinic story), in the Mechilta of Rabbi Yishmael, imagines that, when the Exodus was underway, the Israelites were distracted. They were busy gathering their things, perhaps even taking the spoils, the reparations they deserved from their Egyptian masters, as they prepared to leave. Moses, however, was in search of Joseph’s bones, fulfilling the oath made generations earlier. But the search for Moses’ exact burial site was challenging. Enter Serach bat Asher, granddaughter of Jacob. The Midrash explains that Serach, a little-known female voice in our tradition, showed Moses where they were buried. This same Serach, according to rabbinic legend, stayed alive since the time of Jacob and through the 430 years of slavery. She had been the one to convince Jacob that Joseph was in fact still alive. Some say that she accompanies Israel on their journey to the holy land. Serach bat Asher knew that to truly begin a march to freedom meant that we need to carry the stories of those who came before us, those who perished, those who fought for equality and justice, who marched in pursuit of freedom, with us.  

There is a New York based hip hop group called the Peace Poets. I first learned a song of theirs when visiting Guatemala, learning about the 36-year genocide that took the lives of hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans. We sang together, the words of their song, words that speak to this moment here in Montgomery, Alabama, as we begin our journey, words that would equally resonate for our ancestors as we reread their story this Shabbat, this Shabbat Shirah, of song: 

We have not come here alone,
we carry our people in our bones
We have not come here alone,
and if you listen, we can hear them in our souls. 

Sunday was just the beginning. This week is only the first step on the march forward. Over the coming weeks and months, I will continue sharing, teaching, studying, and exploring with our community about this trip and how it might inform our journey going forward. But to begin, I start first by honoring, acknowledging, accepting responsibility, a commitment to ongoing learning, listening, singing, and following Serach, of the ancient world and throughout history, so many Serachs who help us so we can redeem and carry the bones of ancestors with us. For in doing so, we may be able to get one step closer to building a more equal, just, and free world for all peoples.