At the end of the Passover holiday two significant customs are observed. One is the Torah reading about the crossing of the Red Sea. Tradition teaches that this happened on the 7th day of the Exodus.
The other tradition is reciting the Yizkor memorial service at the end of the holiday.
While there is no obvious connection between these two customs, I believe if we read the Torah text along with the Rabbinic commentary as brought by Rashi, perhaps we will understand how these two customs are connected.
We read in the Book of Exodus, in the section (Parasha) called “B’shallach,” the story of when the Israelites left slavery in Egypt, actually, when they were sent out of Egypt by Pharaoh.
The text reads: “Moses took Joseph's bones with him, for he [Joseph] had adjured the sons of Israel, saying, God will surely remember you, and you shall bring up my bones from here with you” Exodus 13:19
Rashi, the medieval Biblical commentator, has two interesting comments on two phrases found in this verse:
Rashi: “for he had adjured (and adjured)”
Heb. הִֹשְבִּיעַ הַֹשְבֵּעַ.
[The double expression indicates that] he [Joseph] had made them [his brothers] swear that they would make their children swear (Mechilta). Now why did he not make his sons swear to carry him to the land of Canaan immediately [when he died], as Jacob had made [him] swear? Joseph said, “I was a ruler in Egypt, and I had the ability to do [this]. As for my sons-the Egyptians will not let them do [it].” Therefore, he made them swear that when they would be redeemed and would leave there [Egypt], they would carry him [out]. — [from Mechilta]
Rashi “…and you shall bring up my bones from here with you”:
He made his brothers swear in this manner. We learn [from this] that the bones of all [the progenitors of] the tribes they brought up [out of Egypt] with them as it is said “with you” -[from Mechilta].
Perhaps Rashi surprised that, at this great moment of liberation, when Moses, the nation’s leader, is busy leading over 1 million slaves out of Egypt after over 200 years of slavery, he takes time, spends precious time, to dig up Joseph’s burial plot so that he can bring his remains to the promised land.
This is surprising, indeed. Joseph has been dead for more than 200 years. Why the necessity to disturb the grave?
Clearly Moses was not fulfilling a personal promise, but rather, one made by Joseph’s family before he died. Moses was not a descendant of Joseph but he was the national leader.
As such, he fulfilled a national commitment, just as Joseph kept the promise he made to his father, Jacob before his death. It was a national promise to Jacob, as the father of all the tribes of Israel.
A fundamental tenant of Judaism is our belief that when the body dies the soul lives on. Our commitments to our loved ones do not end when they die. Moreover, we have had a 3500-year connection to Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel.
Passover, the first holiday of the Jewish people, clearly teaches these principles to each generation, as we say at every seder:
“In every generation, every person is obligated to envision himself as if he personally had gone out from Egypt.”
Each of us is a descendant of the Exodus and tied to it.
To this day we continue the tradition of lighting Yahrzeit candles and coming to temple for Yizkor services to remember our loved ones and to keep the promises we made to never forget them and all the ways they gave their love to us.
May we all continue to pass along this teaching to our descendants.
Temple B'nai Emet
Warmth and Tradition