The Bones of Joseph

Vayehi Drash by Howard Streicher

The different themes to pursue in Parsha Vayehi (“And he lived”) give us the opportunity for integrating the past into the present.  Yet, accepting the value of Torah without questioning the literal truth of the events described in Genesis is not easy for everyone.  Today we may look at several examples where we may happily do both. 

Jacob in adopting Joseph’s children says “I had not thought it possible I would see your face and now God has let me see even your children.“ But why does Joseph allow his children to be returned to Jacob?

Rabbi Sachs and recently Stephen Mitchell, poet translator and author of “Joseph and the Way of Forgiveness” point out that Joseph doesn’t just forgive or forget but accepts fully that both he and his brothers played their parts according to G-d’s will so both forgiveness and repentance are a form of faith 

The blessings Jacob offers his children are enigmatic and difficult to interpret but the one explanation I see clearly is creating the geopolitical reality of later times as Joseph rejects Leah’s older children Reuven, Simon, Levi in favor of Judah who became the dominant force in the south and shifting his right-hand blessing to Ephraim who was the dominant force in the North. 

And Johnathan Sacks also points out that sometimes it is ok to lie to alter the past — as the brothers say to Joseph, “Our father said to please forgive the crimes of your brothers.” Joseph responds “Don’t be afraid. Even if you meant to do evil, God meant it for good.”

The Sages derived a principle from this text. Mutar le-shanot mipnei ha-shalom: “It is permitted to change the facts for the sake of peace.” How far to take this is a good subject for Talmudic discussion.

Now we have Joseph as a prince of Egypt having wealth and privilege. With a different narrative he could have separated from his brothers but he either chose or was forced to be buried not inside a pyramid but in Malpelach in Sechem and to have his children adopted by Jacob back into the tribes.  Whether he was assimilated or not, Joseph recognized that a pyramid was not the path to eternal life.   

There is a midrash: On the night the Jews were about to leave Egypt, they realized they could not leave without one precious thing: the bones of Joseph. An elderly woman, Serach Bat Asher a very popular but mysterious Midrashic character in Genesis, mentions among those going down to Egypt and again returning with Moses at the steppes of Moab —- led Moses to the Nile to where Joseph’s bones were hidden. The site had otherwise been forgotten over time.  Can you blame them?  Given the situation they were in who knew they would ever be needed?

But why were Joseph’s bones so precious?

Recovering Joseph’s bones perhaps forces his descendants to remember their identity and at the same time creates this ancient text which has been studied from generation to generation that lets us identify with the “our history.” So, what is it that is passed on from generation to generation and gives us substance to our identity?  Joseph’s bones and the genealogy they represent or Joseph’s story which we read and discuss over and over?

On a Sabbath in March 1349 CE, the Jewish community of Erfurt, Germany was wiped out in a pogrom possibly motivated by financial gain – much as the growing wealth and numbers of Jacob’s descendants provoked the Egyptians.  The archbishop of Mainz, who had granted Jews the right to live and work there restored the Jewish community and it was rebuilt 5 years later drawing Jews from across Europe who were perhaps convinced it would never happen again. They flourished for 100 years until 1454 when the town council revoked the rights forcing them to leave. The city built a granary on top of the Jewish cemetery— whose bodies remained undisturbed until 2013 when an excavation of the site found 60 skeletons most with their legs still pointing east toward Jerusalem.

Professor Shai Carmi of Hebrew University along with  David Reich, leading expert on ancient DNA, were very pessimistic about the possibility of studying the remains  given sensitivity surrounding Jewish racial genetics  and prohibitions on disturbing the dead.

A way was found by using loose teeth to extract DNA. 33 whole genome sequences were recovered and my sources, two articles, “Genome-wide data from medieval German Jews show that the Ashkenazi founder event pre-dated the 14th century” in the journal Cell and a discussion of the background “Meeting the Ancestors” in Science were published in December 2022.

Where did these Jews of Erfurt come from and how are we today related to them? There is no ancient DNA available yet from the biblical past. So any direct connection is speculative but overall is consistent with a history of the Jewish people descending from ancient  Israelites and their dispersion throughout the old world.  We have known from disease-associated genes in modern Ashkenazi populations – Tay Sachs for example – that occur with preserved identical mutations, stemmed from a single genetic event trapped in a genetic population bottleneck in medieval Europe. 

The Erfurt studies suggest that this population was limited to less than 1000 – possibly less than 500 hundred – individuals or fewer at one time — and now we know that this small group of founding ancestors went back several hundred years to about 900 CE.   Also, in the Erfurt population mitochondrial DNA passed on only from mothers suggests one woman was the ancestor of 30% of the population.  Another surprise was that there was more genetic diversity than we see today with a separate identifiable group— related but with a stronger mid-eastern ancestry. This small community mixed and later expanded to become the genetically more homogenous Ashkenazi population of approximately 10 million today. Doesn’t this scenario sound similar to Jacob’s founding role and the burgeoning population explosion in Egypt where a small group of 70 related individuals with one male and 4 female ancestors expanded to perhaps several hundred thousand people over 300 years?

Bottlenecks call to mind catastrophes and collapse such as massacres or discrimination and persecution – all the horrible things that prevent people from marrying outside their community. Common wisdom had suggested that the cause of this medieval contraction were the pogroms, black death, or Crusades of the 14th century but the evidence from Erfurt and the Joseph story itself suggests a different narrative of a small community prospering expanding and then being persecuted and finally redeemed. And in describing the Jews of Erfurt we could be describing the Jews of Joseph’s Egypt. 

As the authors in “Meeting the Ancestors” asserted, “The truth is the Jews of medieval Germany settled there by invitation, were welcomed there when they came and were integrated into medieval German space—and all the while were a religious, and sometimes persecuted, other.” 

Before I finish, I need to point out that there are some deep and serious matters in studying genetic ancestry, and not just for Jews.

First, tracing ancestry or lineage of a person or group identifies who had ancestors in common possibly relationships among groups with common ancestors, which may have separated and sometimes later come back together. They are plausible statistical recreations of the past.  The variations in no way define character, intelligence, ethical values much less racial characteristics. 

I thought a lot about the importance of how we answer these questions   – genetic difference among people and groups cannot be ignored but misuse and misunderstanding to create a sense of cultural moral superiority and exclusion has led too often to tragedy.  

On the other hand, studying Dr. David Reich’s Who We Are and How We Got Here can be a lot of fun. An example that I came across: 

“The Samaritans are a population historically well identified since at least the 4th century BCE and possibly before the Assyrian invasion 722.  They define themselves as the descendants of tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh. A 2004 study comparing  Y-DNA and DNA-mt  concludes that significant similarities exist between paternal lines of Jews and Samaritans, but the maternal lines are different.” Now with the Torah portion today this made perfect sense to me.    Ephraim and Manasseh inherited their Y chromosomes from Joseph that was shared with all the brothers but their mitochondrial DNA from their mother, the Egyptian Asenath rather than the sisters Leah and Rachael. So they had a different maternal ancestor not shared with the other tribes. How could the results be otherwise?

“All the myths we create, all the symbolism and stories we make are always rooted in something real— fragments of the past,” Kristin Armstrong-Oma professor of archaeology at the Museum of Archaeology, University of Stavanger, Norway.

And one day the bones of Joseph may be found and who can say what will be discovered? 

Good Shabbos

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