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Beshalach – Where Past and Present Meet

3 February 2023

Dear Members and Friends,

Freeman Dyson was an English-American theoretical physicist. Apart from many extraordinary achievements in the scientific world, he published a collection of letters to his family from over four decades. The title of this book is ‘Maker of Patterns: An Autobiography Through Letters.’ 

In 1947, having lived through World War II, twenty-four-year-old Dyson arrives in America to study. In 1948, Dyson wrote in a letter to his friend, comparing British and American cultures and their attitude to the past:

‘Several of my friends are second-generation Americans, whose parents came over from Germany or Poland or Lithuania or some such place… I have always been amazed to find that the young people know practically nothing, and apparently care little, about such matters. It is very strange when one thinks how much we have absorbed about the history and society to which our family belonged.’

He continues his reflections by saying that living in the present might be very helpful and might make people more friendly to each other. He concludes by noticing the audacious friendliness of some Americans and says: ‘friendliness attributed to the size of the country and people’s loneliness in space, but I think the loneliness in time is more important.’

‘Loneliness in time’ is an excellent way to refer to the lack of curiosity about the past. I note that many people have regrets about not having enough conversations with their grandparents about their lives. Perhaps, it is a part of life and who we are, and the idea of spending too much time thinking of the past isn’t too helpful. However, Judaism has always put much emphasis on the notion of memory and remembrance.

This week’s Torah portion – Beshalach – opens with the story of the Children of Israel escaping Egypt and crossing the Sea of Reeds. And Moses took with him the bones of Joseph, fulfilling the promise his children gave him before he died. 

Talmudic Rabbis noticed a beautiful fact (BT Sotah 13a)
all those years that the Jewish people were in the wilderness, these two arks, one a casket of a dead man, Joseph, and one the Ark of the Divine Presence, i.e., the Ark of the Covenant, were traveling together, and passersby would say: What is the nature of these two arks? They said to them: One is of a dead person, and one is of the Divine Presence.

The Ark with Bones of Joseph represents continuity, the connection with the past. Another Ark is the vision for the future, the Jewish ideal and ethical standard. 

In his commentary on this episode, Rabbi David Kasher wrote: ‘It is worth noting here that the word for “bones” in Hebrew, atzamot, is spelt the same as the word for “essence,” atzmut. And the words are related – getting to the “essence” of something is like getting “down to the bone.” So was it bones Moses took out of Egypt?’ (Kasher, David. ParshaNut: 54 Journeys into the World of Torah Commentary (pp. 149-150). Quid Pro Books.)

In other words, to remember our past is to understand our essence. Without the knowledge of the past, a community is faced with loneliness in time. Without a vision for the future, we are in danger of facing loneliness in space. 

May this Shabbat be a time of reflection, remembering our past and creative vision for our future. 

Shabbat shalom,


Tue, 7 February 2023 16 Sh'vat 5783