Purim, Joseph’s Bones, and Our Role in Jewish History

Alex Luxenberg
6 min readMar 3, 2024

I don’t think I am alone in feeling outside of Jewish history. Based on conversations I’ve had, articles I’ve read, and conferences I’ve attended, many diaspora Jews feel this way.

Since 10/7, we are doing our best to participate, at arm’s length, in the continual unfolding of Jewish history. Visiting Israel, attending rallies, donating money, speaking up at work/school, advocating in government. Yet, it still feels like we are benchwarmers on a varsity basketball team — I would know, I sat on the pine for many years.

With Purim around the corner, I’ve started to consider what we can learn from Diaspora Jewry’s greatest story.

The story of Purim takes place in the Persian empire under the rule of King Achashverosh. The beginning of the story is set at a time, based on the details of the story, where Jews were close to the throne but unable to confidently admit they were Jews. They were scapegoats, the punchline to an evil man’s plot. Sounds familiar.

A series of unlikely events occur, and the Jewish people are spared of the evil man’s plot — the mention of God is notably missing from the tale. They establish a holiday, eat & drink and rejoice.

What can we learn from this story as Diaspora Jews?

I’d like to take two brief tangents and return to the question above.

Sinai vs. Shushan

Joseph and Ester Meeting (according to Midjourney AI)

There is a well-known opinion in the Talmud (Shabbat 88a), which states that the Jews at Sinai were coerced into accepting the Torah. The sages of the Talmud, picking up on the words, “and they stood at the lowermost part of the mount”, declare that the mountain was held over the Jews, if they accepted the Torah all would be good, if they did not then they would be buried under the mountain. Based on this reading, one of the sages speaks up and says, ‘this is a significant caveat to the obligation to fulfill the commandments of the Torah!” — in other words, if the Jews were forced to accept the Torah, are the really required to adhere to it?

This reading didn’t sit well with the great sage Rava, who responded to the claim above with a famous comparison:

“Rava said: Even so, they again accepted it willingly in the time of Ahasuerus, as it is written: “The Jews ordained, and took upon them, and upon their seed, and upon all such as joined themselves unto them” (Esther 9:27), and he taught: The Jews ordained what they had already taken upon themselves through coercion at Sinai.”

Rava is putting Jewish history on a continuum. Sure, he says, the Jews of Sinai may have been coerced but nearly 800 years later the Jews of Shushan remedied the situation by willingly accepting the Torah.

Joseph’s Bones

At the end of Jacob’s life, he asked his sons to bury him in Canaan, to which they expressly comply — leaving Egypt for a brief time to fulfill their father’s dying wish.

Shortly thereafter, at the end of Joseph’s life, Joseph asked that his bones be taken out of Egypt by future generations to be buried in Canaan/Israel:

“(24) At length, Joseph said to his brothers, “I am about to die. God will surely take notice of you and bring you up from this land to the land promised on oath to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.” (25) So Joseph made the sons of Israel swear, saying, “When God has taken notice of you, you shall carry up my bones from here.”

Consequently, we hear about Joseph’s bones two more times in Tanach. The first time is when Moses takes the bones during the Exodus. The second time is at the end of the book of Joshua, immediately after Joshua dies:

“The bones of Joseph, which the Israelites had brought up from Egypt, were buried at Shechem, in the piece of ground that Jacob had bought for a hundred kesitahs from the children of Hamor, Shechem’s father, and which had become a heritage of the Josephites”. — Joshua 24:32

There are several things we can unpack here. (1) Joseph and Joshua both die at 110 years old…I believe the only two major charactes in Tanach (2) Why did the Israelites wait so long to bury Joseph’s bones? (3) Whose responsibility was it to watch over Joseph’s bones all this time? It had been 500+ years since Joseph had died.

The Responsibility to Jewish History

The tangents above illustrate communal Jewish responsibility to the continuance of Jewish history in the Diaspora.

The Jews of Purim act as a paradigm for Jewish confidence and strength outside of Israel. They are both integrated in society and differentiated in their practices. They aren’t afraid to leverage their skills and know-how for the greater good. They are cognizant of Jewish history and the centrality of Jerusalem, but they know how to forge their own path. (Would be happy to point to verses for each one of these examples).

The Talmudic sage Rava picks up on these themes. He realizes that the Jews of Persia don’t see themselves as living in a vacuum. Rather, they view themselves as being on the continuum of Jewish history — when they accept the laws of Purim, they are adding to a grander story.

One the other hand, the story of Joseph’s bones is a mesmerizing illustration of the individual component of communal responsibility. It took individual people, including Moses, to care enough about Joseph’s dying wish to make it a reality. In each subsequent generation, for nearly 500 years, someone had to be the custodian of Joseph’s bones. Through an unbroken chain, there was a collective effort to manifest the dream of a visionary ancestor.

One question we asked above about the Joseph story is, why did the Jews wait so long to bury his bones? Why didn’t they lighten their load as soon as the crossed the Jordan? Remember, this happens at the end of the conquest, at the end of Joshua’s life.

I’d like to quickly revisit the end of the book of Joshua.

Two chapters before the death of Joshua and the burial of Joseph’s bones, Joshua engages in a charged conversation with the Jewish people. In that conversation he tells his people, forsake your idols, and join me and my family in worshipping God. To which the people respond, “Far be it from us to forsake the Eternal and serve other gods!” — Joshua challenges them again, and ultimately, he realizes they are in fact genuine in their commitment to God. Joshua records this powerful conversation and memorializes it in a holy place.

It’s at this point that Joshua dies, presumably a satisfied leader.

It is only after the above events unfold, literally 2 verses later, that we are told that the bones of Joseph were buried in Shechem.

What’s the connection?

I’d like to suggest that this where the stories of Purim and Joseph’s bones are connected.

The key action in any great moment of Jewish history is a communal declaration that we are committed to the continuity and perpetuation of Jewish history and values. Rava saw this and so did the Jews of Joshua’s time.

For Rava, Purim wouldn’t be enough if it wasn’t tethered to a bigger picture. For Joseph, the burial of his bones in a non-sovereign land by a community not committed to his values was futile.

The Talmud tells us that Jacob was nervous on his deathbed, he was worried that his kids wouldn’t perpetuate his values. This is the scene that comes immediately before Joseph’s request that his bones be buried in Israel — Joseph did not get this idea from nowhere, he did so in response to his father’s insistence that his values go on.


So here we are in 2024.

The details may be different, but the assignment is the same.

If Jewish history is a tapestry, these days feel more like the knotty side. It’s hard to see the big picture. It is hard to anticipate how all the small things we do will add up.

There is, however, a playbook here. We must commit to continuity. Not just survival, but to continue to perpetuate our values and the dreams of our ancestors.

Everyone will do this in their own way, but they can’t do it in a way that doesn’t tie back to the incredible spine of Jewish history.