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Déjà-vu: a chance to learn from mistakes – Parashat Beshalach

Regret is something we all probably have, whether for bigger blunders or for less significant slip ups. What then happens when we have Déjà vu, a similar opportunity presents itself all over again?  If  we already learned from our mistake, now we can now (hope to) do the right thing.

Rabbi Chaya Rowan Baker, internships coordinator at the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary, shows us how Bnei Israel get a chance to right their wrong, a big one at that. Both Jacob and Joseph ask to be taken from Egypt and to be buried in the Promised Land. Joseph made the mistake of returning to Egypt after having taken Jacob’s bones and burying them in Canaan. Moses, in charge of transporting Joseph’s bones, knows not to make the same error.

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One of the scariest thoughts of life, is that as we prepare to leave this world, we might look back on our lives with a sense of regret. And on the other hand, how is it possible to live without regrets?

Regrets are an expression of self-criticism, which is an important tool for growth and improvement.

Regret is also an acknowledgement of mistakes. No one is exempt from mistakes, and it is certainly not a virtue not to acknowledge them when they do occur. Regret is also an expression of prioritizing values. The challenge is that sometimes we realize the best prioritization only in retrospect.

Sometimes we do enjoy moments of clarity, and manage to make the right decision – recognizing that the alternative will cause us to feel regret. Parashat Beshalach gently hints at some deep insight into living with regrets. In the first verses of the parsha, we are told that in the dramatic and formative moments of the Exodus from Egypt, the children of Israel took with them the bones of Joseph for burial in the Promised Land, as Joseph had requested.

Among all the complicated stories at the end of Genesis, a brief passage sometimes gets overlooked: A few verses before the end of the book, we learn that the children of Israel already left Egypt!

Joseph and his brothers, “and his father’s house”, made the journey from Egypt to the land of Canaan to bury Jacob, at his request. Jacob’s embalmed body did not wait until the Exodus to be brought to burial in Canaan as did the bones of Joseph. And every year when I read this I think to myself: Why did they return to Egypt???? They were out!  Their subsequent enslavement with all its suffering and death – could have been avoided.

There must have been several reasons for them to return to Egypt, but one is explicitly mentioned in that passage: they had left the children behind. And the flocks… It says that those who left were:

“וְכֹל בֵּית יוֹסֵף וְאֶחָיו וּבֵית אָבִיו רַק טַפָּם וְצֹאנָם וּבְקָרָם עָזְבוּ בְּאֶרֶץ גֹּשֶׁן”

The house of Joseph and his brothers and his father’s house. But they left their children and their flocks in the Land of Goshen. Generations later, Moses – who had no intention of returning – declared to Pharaoh (as we read last week):

״בִּנְעָרֵינוּ וּבִזְקֵנֵינוּ נֵלֵךְ בְּבָנֵינוּ וּבִבְנוֹתֵנוּ בְּצֹאנֵנוּ וּבִבְקָרֵנוּ נֵלֵךְ״.

We shall leave with our children and our elders, the boys and the girls, the sheep and the cattle. But assuming that the Egyptians would have no reason to prohibit this in Joseph’s generation, the children of Israel could have all left together at that point, taking their children with them, perhaps with the exemption of Joseph himself, and that would have been the end of the story!

The clan returns to the land of their fathers and mothers, with their father’s bones. But they missed that opportunity. And that decision – whether they regretted it themselves, or only their descendants who suffered Pharaoh’s decrees – shaped our story forever. That is why one word in parashat Beshalach becomes so significant: אתכם. with you.

What, in fact, did Joseph command with regard to his remains? In the verse before last in the Book of Genesis, just before his death, Joseph said: “God will remember you and you shall carry up my bones from here.”

Verse nineteen in chapter thirteen, in our parsha, quotes verbatim this last will of Joseph, and says that Moses took the bones of Joseph “for he had sworn the children of Israel, saying: ‘God will remember you; and you shall carry up my bones from here – he only adds one word: with you.’

You shall carry up my bones from here – with you.”

Do not transport the bones alone again.

Take the bones – with you.

Do not miss the opportunity again.

Learn from past mistakes.

Do not fear: neither the Philistines nor the Amalekites nor hunger nor disease nor thirst.

Faith and freedom – that is what holds a human being.

Do not be tempted by the convenience of assumed security.

Faith and freedom.

Take me *with you* and build in the Promised Land a life of faith and freedom.

According to this reading, the exodus was the correction of a historical mistake, while boldly entering an eternal and mostly enigmatic covenant. By doing so, our ancestors exhibited for us the delicate and important balance between regret and improvement, and the strength to be content and accepting.

Shavua Tov from Schechter!

Rabbi Rowen-Baker is the rabbinical seminary internships coordinator, liaising between rabbis in the field and current students. She ensures that students have meaningful experiences in pulpits, schools and organizations.

Ordained in 2007 by the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary, Rabbi Rowen-Baker serves since her ordination as the rabbi of Kehillat Ramot-Zion in French Hill, Jerusalem.  Ramot Zion, a flagship Masorti congregation, is home to many Israelis in search of a meaningful connection to Jewish tradition in a rapidly changing world.

Much of Rabbi Rowen-Baker’s work is done outside the synagogue space, with those not accustomed to synagogue life, so as to make accessible a vibrant Jewish approach and practice which is part of all walks of life.  In 2015 she was the first Masorti rabbi – and the first female rabbi – ever to be invited to teach Torah at the Israeli President’s residence.

Rabbi Rowen-Baker lives in French Hill, Jerusalem with her husband Etai, their four children Adaya, Keshet, Clil, and Yagel, and their dog Hummus.

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