Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Gazan Exodus and Joseph's Bones

The Jewish Week, June 3, 2005

Israel is set to begin its disengagement from Gaza in mid-August, immediately following Tisha b'Av. It was a good idea to move the date from late July, as it would have landed the pullout during the Three Weeks of mourning leading up to the fast.

Nothing is simple in this ancient land, where every breath is measured against events that occurred eons ago. For many Jews, the destructions and exiles commemorated on that fateful fast day are not historical curiosities but living events burning with contemporary resonance. So the prospect of Jews being evicted from Gaza and their homes turned to rubble in late July would only have fed into the apocalyptic overtones of the Three Weeks.

No matter what you do in Israel, you cannot escape the shadows of history. What Yehuda Amichai wrote about Jerusalem, calling it "the only city in the world where the right to vote is granted even to the dead," is true of the entire land, even Gaza.

For it's not only the ghosts of Josephus and Jeremiah who will hover to the surface as this hot Israeli summer approaches. Those who have been laid to rest most recently also will get a vote, especially if they've been buried in Gush Katif. Evacuating the living Israeli Gazans will be a snap compared to the more ominous task of relocating the dead ones.

Disengagement Authority Chairman Yonatan Bassi has offered burial plots in the area of Nitzan, within the Green Line, to the 47 families with relatives in Gaza's Neve Dekalim cemetery.

Rabbi Yosef Elnekaveh, head of Neve Dekalim's burial society, told The Jerusalem Post, "Right now we are praying that disengagement does not happen. If it becomes a reality, then we will deal with it."There has been much discussion as to whether to exhume the remains of settlers, many of whom died defending their right to remain there eternally. Israel has always vigorously pursued a policy of "no corpse left behind," routinely swapping dozens of prisoners for the body of a single dead soldier, and the Israeli government is loath to leave behind 47 graves for Palestinian groups to desecrate or barter. Jewish law allows for the body to be exhumed only in exceptional situations, at least three of which apply in the case of Gaza: the unification of family plots; potential dangers for visitors; and the probability of vandalism.

Some suggest, however, that leaving the cemetery intact would be a fitting test for the Palestinians. If they can't be counted on to respect the rights of the dead, then how will they ever be able to earn the trust of the living? For proof of this, we need go back no further than the fall of 2000 and the brutal desecration of Joseph's Tomb in Nablus (the biblical Shechem), the first key indicator that this was not going to be your father's intifada.

The fascinating saga of Joseph's remains yields other insights into our current quandary. One of the strangest sidebars to the Exodus was the transport of those remains of that wandering, dreaming patriarch who had initiated Israel's migration to Egypt centuries before. Here are some lessons we can take from the surrounding Midrash:

At the time of Joseph's death, according to Jubilees, hostilities between Egypt and Canaan made things dicey along the border (so what else is new?). Joseph valued the safety of the living over the sanctity of burial, informing his descendants, "God will surely remember you and you shall carry up my bones with you."The message: Move the dead when it is safest for the living to do so. At the time of the Exodus, some say that Joseph's bones were discovered while the Israelites were looting Egypt, an ironic twist since the living Joseph had been "stolen" from his homeland, where he was sold into slavery for 100 pieces of silver. His remains were then brought back to the scene of that original crime, Shechem, where his burial plot was purchased for exactly the same amount. But even the permanent return of Joseph's remains did not assure that future generations would remain embedded there; the tribes of Joseph, Ephraim and Menashe were among those sent into exile by the Assyrians in 721 BCE.

Message: The land of Israel is filled with Jewish graves, not one of which guarantees a permanent Jewish presence anywhere.

When the Israelites marched through the wilderness, the Ark of the Covenant traveled alongside the coffin carrying Joseph's bones. The Hebrew words for "ark" and "coffin" are the same, aron. The Midrash adds, "This one fulfilled all that was in that one"; that is, Joseph was so righteous that he observed the commandments even before they were given.

But the verse can also mean that the Exodus was the fulfillment of the dreamer's greatest aspirations. Joseph would have been shaken to the bone to have witnessed hundreds of thousands of Israelites celebrating their newfound freedom and committing themselves to an eternal, and eternallyportable, Covenant. That ark would move on to many different places before finding its home ultimately in Jerusalem. And then, centuries later, the sacred idea within the Ark would be symbolically carried out of Jerusalem -- in a coffin, no less -- by Yochanan ben Zakkai, who escaped the besieged city just before the Roman destruction of 70 CE.

The message: Torah trumps territory. In the end, it matters less where the dead are buried than that their descendents keep that Covenant alive, wherever possible, for as long as possible.Move the remains now, while it's safe, so they can be where their loved ones can honor them. Maybe someday they, like Joseph, will return. But after awhile graves mingle and bones, powder and humus all become one. What live on are the ideals, the love and the eternal -- and eternally portable -- legacy of Judaism.

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