The Ark of Yosef and the Ark of the Covenant

  • Harav Mosheh Lichtenstein





With gratitude and in honor of the bar mitzvah,
this year b'ezrat Hashem, of our twin sons,
Michael and Joshua - Steven Weiner and Lisa Wise


This shiur is dedicated by Drs. Jerry and Barbara Belsh.



Parashat beshalach



The Ark of Yosef and the Ark of the Covenant

Adapted by Ari Schwab



Parashat Beshalach begins with the exodus from Egypt; the next logical step is direction.  The verses describe the Jews as armed; even though they will not be fighting, they are ready for skirmish.  The third verse is somewhat strange – detailing Moshe’s retrieval of the bones of Yosef.  This seemingly insignificant detail is linked to their leaving: the nation leaves with arms, Moshe leaves with a corpse.  Now, this could have been tucked away in a narrative somewhere earlier (while discussing the gold and silver) or later (when Yosef is reburied).  For some reason, the Torah wishes to emphasize Yosef and the fact that this was Moshe’s individual project; it is not the nation taking Yosef, but Moshe and only Moshe. 


The Gemara (Sota 13a-b) assumes that this account expresses a criticism of the nation:


Our Rabbis have taught: Come and see how beloved were the mitzvot upon Moshe our teacher; for whereas all the Israelites occupied themselves with the spoils, he occupied himself with the mitzvot, as it is said: “The wise in heart will receive mitzvot” (Mishlei 10:8), etc.


At the time of the messianic redemption, there will be some experiencing the Shekhina, and others peddling T-shirts and souvenirs.  This is the message of the Gemara.  True, they had license to collect these possessions, but their order of priorities was misplaced.


We need to address an additional point: Moshe is coming full circle.  To examine this, we need to contrast Yosef and Moshe.  There’s an astonishing Midrash (Yalkut Shim’oni, Va’etchanan 814) that “he who was identified with the land [Yosef] shall be buried there; he who was not identified with it [Moshe], shall not be buried there.”  Both of our characters are fugitives.  Moshe conceals his identity at the well, addressed as an “Egyptian” by the daughters of Yitro.  On the level of peshat, this makes sense – he is undercover, running scared from the Egyptian secret police.  But Chazal found here a layer of criticism, as he was willing to fully adopt this identity.


Yosef, on the other hand, is in an even worse spot – being in prison in ancient Egypt, he does not require much imagination to assume the worst is in store for him.  Yosef’s striking characteristic is his burning ambition – he wants recognition and power, and ends up at a dead end.  He becomes a slave, and then falls even lower.  His dreams seem forgotten, his ambitions destroyed.  Yosef, we must remember, has a dream – which the Ramban sees as a prophecy (Bereshit 42:9, s.v. va-yizkor) – and when, out of nowhere, Pharaoh summons him, imagine his feelings: his ambitions are about to realized.  He has two options – life or death, and everything is in Pharaoh’s hands.  Presumably, Yosef’s fate rests in his ability to find favor in Pharaoh’s eyes – his life and his dreams are balanced on the edge of a knife.  Yet, in the chapter just before that episode, what does he do?  How does he characterize himself to the sar ha-mashkim, the butler?  He states forthrightly that his identity is as a Jew (40:15)!  He is proud of being a Jew.  Later, he presents his brothers to Pharaoh (47:1-6), taking pride in his affiliation.  And when he dies, his sole wish is to be returned to the Land of Israel (50:25).  Not the land where he served, not land where he ruled, but the land of his dreams.  Chazal perceive a struggle between Pharaoh and Yosef over the burial of Yaakov – it is a struggle of identity.


To go back to our midrash, Yosef wore his Jewishness on his sleeve; Moshe did not. The midrash, strikingly extreme in its willingness to criticize Moshe, notes this fact as the reason, midda ke-negged midda, measure for measure, for Moshe’s inability to enter the Land, even to be buried there.


Yosef’s actions are startling – even the slightest bit of antisemitism, and his plan would have failed.  Why go out on this limb, seemingly unnecessarily?  Moshe is almost the reverse – he abandons his people, his faith, his connection.  Rashi (Shemot 2:14, s.v. akhen) quotes the Midrash that Moshe, after speaking to the two Jews who were fighting with each other, understood that the nation deserved to be enslaved:


A midrashic explanation is this: [Moshe said to himself,] Now is known to me that matter about which I had been puzzled – how has Israel sinned more than all seventy nations, that they should be oppressed by this crushing servitude?  But now I see that they deserve this.


He loses faith in people, in history and destiny, and wanders off to the desert, alone for many years.  Here he stays, devoid of any human contact, let alone identification with the Jewish people.  When it is time to return, he tells Yitro something ambiguous:


And Moshe went and returned to Yitro his father-in-law, and said to him, “Let me go, I beseech you, and return to my brothers who are in Egypt, and see whether they are still alive.” And Yitro said to Moshe, “Go in peace.” (4:18)


Is he describing their suffering, or a broader quest for reconnection to the people?  Are the Jews alive; is their destiny still beckoning?  God must come and motivate Moshe, put him on the track towards recognizing the God of his forefathers, the God of history, not the philosophical/esoteric God.  The identification of Moshe as an “ish Mitzri,” an “Egyptian man” (Shemot 2:19), wasn’t just coincidence or disguise.  It was his abandonment of Jewish identity – to engage with God, yes, but this was a detachment nonetheless.


Later, Moshe comes full cycle in cheit ha-egel, the sin of the golden calf. Moshe has absorbed the lesson of the seneh, the burning bush – God is the God of the forefathers – and he reminds God, as it were.  He understands that his role is to come back to the seneh, not alone, but as a nation.  This is the background for our cursory analysis.


By fulfilling Yosef’s directive, Moshe redeems himself as well.  There was a constant glimmer of hope and destiny stirring within the nation.  Chazal speak about this, but it appears to be clear – there was an oral tradition of redemption; God’s message to Moshe presupposes some expectation on the part of the nation.  Where did this begin?  Yosef himself, at the end of Sefer Bereishit, foresees and foretells this.  He transmits this with an oath on his deathbed (Bereishit 50:25).  Nobody would take an oath in vain minutes before being judged; this reflects his deep inner conviction about the future redemption.  Additionally, Yosef would have had the option of a royal burial, yet he sacrifices the pomp and glory for an “aron be-Mitzrayim,” a “casket in Egypt” (50:26), which could be transferred to another land.  The commentators explain that the aron, the ark of the covenant, had permanent poles for a similar reason – so it could be taken anywhere at a moment’s notice.  Yosef is convinced of redemption and acts accordingly.  Let us remember his biography – his life was a tunnel with, seemingly, no end: first with Potiphar’s wife, then with jail.  And yet, out of nowhere, the sun rose.  Yosef’s life is, itself, this very message!


And when Moshe takes Yosef, it is not just gratitude to Yosef, but out of a recognition of this very redemption.  For the entire servitude, Yosef’s aron was the only sign – metaphorically and physically – of the coming redemption.  It remained a mere aron, waiting for the day of its transfer.  And Moshe now takes it with him.  Let us return to the Gemara:


But how did Moshe know the place where Yosef was buried?  It is related that Serach, daughter of Asher, was a survivor of that generation. Moses went to her and asked: “Do you know where Yosef was buried?” She answered him, “The Egyptians made a metal coffin for him which they fixed in the river Nile so that its waters should be blessed.” Moshe went and stood on the bank of the Nile and exclaimed: “Yosef, Yosef! the time has arrived which the Holy One, blessed be He, swore, ‘I will deliver you,’ and the oath which you imposed upon the Israelites has reached [the time of fulfillment]; if you will show yourself, well and good; otherwise, behold, we are free of your oath.


Chazal add elements of tension: Moshe must appeal to Yosef, giving his aron a choice.  They perceived a struggle of identity.  The Rav z”l liked to mention how the French were insulted when Rothschild insisted on being buried in Zikhron Yaakov.  They had thought that the wealthy businessman and philanthropist was one of them!  But the ultimate sign of identity is burial, “the house for eternity.”  When all is said and done, your identity is where you lie in your death.  The Egyptians wanted Yosef to be one of them, so they sunk him in the Nile, a symbol of Egypt. 


Another opinion deepens this attempt to swing Yosef to the Egyptian nation:


Rabbi Natan says: He was buried in the sepulcher of the kings.


Even more strikingly, he was buried a pyramid – the most recognizable symbol of Egypt.


Moshe comes to Yosef and asks him: Are you Egyptian or Jewish?  Knowing Yosef, we are not surprised by the answer.


Immediately, Yosef’s coffin floated [to the surface]….  At that moment, Yosef’s coffin shook, and Moshe took it and carried it with him. All those years that the Israelites were in the wilderness, those two arks, one of the dead [i.e., Yosef’s coffin] and the other of the Shekhina [i.e., the Ark of the Covenant], proceeded side by side, and passersby used to ask: “What is the nature of those two arks?” They received the reply: “One is of the dead and the other of the Shekhina.”


Strikingly, this Gemara draws a linguistic and conceptual parallel between the two aronot, the Ark and the casket.  Why and how do these go together?  They are incongruous!  Would we place a corpse in a shul?!  The Gemara asks this very question:


But is it, then, the way of the dead to proceed with the Shekhina?  They were told,This one [Yosef] fulfilled all that was written in that one.”


I would answer differently.  It is not that Yosef fulfilled, but he brought about the aron ha-kodesh!  In effect, he created the other aron.  These two aronot represent two different ideas: in one box, we have God above history, the desert, the luchot (tablets), kedusha (sanctity) alone; in the other, we have kedusha within history, the Land and its destiny.  This is the combination of Torah and Eretz Yisrael, Torah and the Jewish people.  Yosef epitomized the Land and the People, and it is this combination with the luchot that is Chazal’s vision of travelling to Eretz Yisrael.  It is not an aron shel met, the casket of a deceased person, but an aron chai – the living body of Jewish identity and continuity.  This is the message of the dual aronot.


            Moshe realizes this, and needs to bear the two aronot to redeem his own identity.  Yosef is not the only one answering: “I am a Jew!”  Moshe has heard the question, and is answering too.  Torat chayim, the living Torah, and Am Yisrael chai, the living Jewish people, walk hand in hand.  The idea of Moshe, greatest of all prophets, taking personal care of aron Yosef means combining the vision of history, identity, destiny and the Land, with its twin, Torah. 


At times, there have been groups that espoused “Land” without “Torah” – classic Zionism, Herzl, Ben Gurion.  This was a fight to return, to struggle and sacrifice for the Land, but one devoid of religion.  Rav Kook accurately referred to them “Mashiach ben Yosef.”  But there also exist groups espousing the opposite approach: Torat Moshe without the ideal of Yosef, Torah without struggle and sacrifice for the nation and the land.


In our haftara, we read how Devora criticizes the other tribes for not coming to war:


Why then did you sit among the sheepfolds, to hear the bleating of the flocks? For the divisions of Reuven there were great searchings of heart.  Gilad dwells beyond the Jordan; and why did Dan remain by the ships? Asher continued on the sea shore, and abode by his bays.  (Shoftim 5:16-17)


Most of these tribes appear to be looking for comfort.  Sitting at home and watching television is always easier than fighting in the Gilad.  But there is another group, whose role is somewhat unclear:


Cursed be Meroz, said the angel of the Lord, curse bitterly its inhabitants; because they came not to the help of the Lord, to the help of the Lord against the mighty men. (5:23)


Based in part on Mo’ed Katan 16a, we can explain that these were righteous people, careful about kashrut and other mitzvot, but they had disengaged from the nation, refusing to join in battle at a time of danger.  In the Rambam’s words, they were “poresh mi-darkhei tzibbur,” “people who separated themselves from the ways of the community” (Hilkhot Teshuva 3:11).  For this they are excommunicated – they will not engage with others, and others should not engage with them. 


The ideas of the dual aronot is to combine these two elements. 


I would like to add another point in conclusion.  I have spoken about extremes – of the one idea without the other.  However, it is also possible to possess both values, but in varying degrees – both in Zionism and in Modern Orthodoxy.  The proper balance requires both ideas.  On the one hand, we emphasize an intense Torah education, deep and committed.  This requires the ideal of keviat ittim, setting aside time for Torah study, be it in the study of Tanakh, Ketzot, Chiddushei Rabbenu Chaim, or Daf Yomi – it must become part of your daily routine and life.  But this is not enough.  A proper education requires being identified with the Land.  This is essential not only when you are here in Israel, but even when you return to the Diaspora. 


What do I mean by “identifying with the Land”?  Not just reading the paper in the mornings.  You must live by the Land’s rhythms; it should become part of your mentality.  You should feel hurt by attacks here, unable to be happy that whole day.  You should follow the elections and the economic struggle, not only on Wall Street, but here.  You are a part of the nation – from afar maybe, but a part nonetheless.  The Internet should be used not only for the Virtual Beit Midrash, but for Israeli newspapers.  This ideal is Yosef’s prophecy – he had no other choice but for his bones to make it to Israel.  Live people can bring their bones along with the rest of them to this land.


Let me be clear.  Living here has spiritual fulfillment in any profession in which one is engaged.  Of course, this is all true anywhere – chessed is possible throughout the world.  But an engineer in Yerushalayim is building the land, a part of Jewish development and history.  Building a subway system in New York is working for a government; building a skyscraper in England is working for a queen, a nation.  But it will not be linked to Jewish pride. 


If this is true of an engineer, how much more so regarding those working for social justice.  Social workers here are not just aiding the individual, but they are building a society in accordance with Yeshayahu and the prophets.  In the Diaspora, there is less of a communal element, and certainly no national aspect.  Living and working here builds a nation.  You go back to the Diaspora as Yosefs, but like Yosef, you must retain the plan and the dream to return.  The point is to recognize how to combine the two aronot; if it was true in the desert, it is still true today: twinning the aron of Torah with the aron of Am Yisrael in Eretz Yisrael.


(This sicha was delivered to Overseas Students at Yeshivat Har Etzion, 10 Shevat, 5769 [2009].)