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The Essential Bones of Yoseph

Rabbi Wagensberg
Shvii Shel Pesach
The Essential Bones of Yoseph

Historically, Shvii Shel Pesach (the seventh day of Passover) celebrates the Jewish people's crossing of the Red Sea, and every year, it corresponds to the sixth day of the Omer. The Sefirah, or Kabbalistic energy, of this sixth day is called "Yesod She'b'Chesed" - literally, "Foundation of Kindness." (Chesed - kindness - is the energy of the whole first week of the Omer, and each day expresses a different aspect of it.) What is the connection between the Sefirah of the day and the event it commemorates?

The verse dramatically describes the crossing of the Sea as, "The ocean saw and fled" (Tehillim 114:3). The Midrash (Shocher Tov, Tehillim, 114:3) wonders what exactly the ocean saw that caused it to split. The Midrash answers, "[It saw] the bones of Yosef."

Now, Yosef is known throughout Jewish writings as "Yosef HaTzaddik." We are taught (Mishlei 10:25) that "A tzaddik is the foundation (yesod) of the world." Therefore, if Yosef is called a tzaddik, and a tzaddik is the foundation (yesod) of the world, then, Yosef is connected with the quality of foundation (yesod).

We noted above that the Sefirah of the seventh day of Passover is called YESOD she'b'chesed. We can connect all these ideas if we understand that in the merit of YESOD (Yosef), God performed the great CHESED (kindness) of splitting the Sea for us.

But one question still remains. What was it about Yosef that caused the Sea to split in his merit?

We could suggest that Yosef's fundamental strength was his ability to counteract nature. When Yosef was 17 years old, working as a servant in Egypt, his master Potiphar's wife repeatedly tried to seduce him. Through tremendous effort (described in Sotah, chap. 7, "Eilu Ne'emarin", pg. 36b), Yosef managed to withstand this temptation. According to the natural way of the world, it would have been almost impossible for a 17-year-old boy to reject the persistent advances of an attractive woman. Yet Yosef went against the natural order and prevented himself from succumbing. Thus, it was in the merit of Yosef, who counteracted nature, that God counteracted nature when He split the Sea for the Jewish people.

This explanation is supported by the Midrash Shocher Tov itself which teaches that the way we know that it was Yosef's bones which caused the sea to flee is based on a scriptural similarity found in both the Yosef story and in the story about the splitting of the sea. By Yosef the verse says that Yosef "Vayanas" (fled) from before Potifar's wife and ran outside so as not to sin with her (Parshas Vayeishev, 39:12). Similarly, by the Splitting of the Sea, the verse says that the sea saw "Vayanas" (and fled).

The usage of the same word in both instances teaches us that when Yosef went against his natural tendency and fled, the sea also went against its natural tendency and fled.

We might still have another question. The Midrash explained that the Sea fled after seeing Yosef's bones. But the Talmud teaches (Baba Basra, chap. 1, "Hashutfin", pg. 17a) that the bodies of righteous people do not decay after death! The phrase "Yosef's bones" (in Hebrew, "atzmos Yosef") certainly seems to imply that Yosef's body decayed! How can we resolve this difficulty?

The word "etzem" (bone) in Hebrew can also mean "essence." We could therefore suggest that the phrase "atzmos Yosef" (Yosef's bones) in the Midrash is also hinting to "atz'miut Yosef" (Yosef's essence).

This interpretation will deepen our understanding of the verse (Parshas Beshalach, 13:19) where we learn that Moshe took "atzmos Yosef" with him before the Jews left Egypt. Although Moshe literally carried Yosef's remains out of Egypt, he also took along Yosef's essence: the willingness to break nature in order to carry out God's will. Moshe, as the leader of the nation, represented the attitude of the Jewish people as a whole, who were prepared to counteract nature if the situation required it. Thus, we can understand the verse, "The ocean saw and fled," to mean that not only was Yosef's atz'miut (essence) revealed at the Sea, but that Yosef's ability to go against nature was also manifest in Moshe and in the entire Jewish people. Therefore, the Sea fled before the Jews in their own merits as well.

The verse (Tehillim 80:2) tells us, "God leads His flock, Yosef." The "flock" in this verse is referring to the Jewish people. Yet, the verse calls all Jewish people "Yosef." We see from here that God's flock - the Jewish people - are called "Yosef" when we reflect the attitude that Yosef stood for. Then, we are all called Yosefites.

This year, on the seventh day of Passover, may we continue to strengthen ourselves in what it means to represent Yosef the Tzaddik. May we cultivate even more of a willingness to change ourselves even when it is not the natural, comfortable, or easy thing to do, and in that merit, may all the seas of challenge in the world split before us, speedily in our days.

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