Moses took Joseph's bones with him,
Ostensibly, it is Moshe upholding a collective promise made some 150 years earlier:
for he [Joseph] had adjured Bnei Yisrael, saying, God will surely remember you, and you shall bring up my bones from here with you
But the midrash sees more than just simple debt repayment here: [Yalkut Shimoni, Bereishis Rabah]
When Hashem told Moshe [by the splitting of the sea] lift up your staff … the sea stood against him .Moshe commanded it in the name of Hashem and the sea did not accept, he showed the stick and it did not accept … until Hashem himself appeared to it and then it split. Another interpretation, it saw the name of Hashem on the stick and split ... it saw the Jews fighting each other to sanctify God’s name … another explanation it saw Yosef’s coffin descending into the sea … Hashem said – flee before the one who fled …
ד"א ראה ארונו של יוסף יורד לים אמר הקב"ה ינוס מפני הנס שנאמר ויעזוב בגדו בידה וינס ויצא החוצה,
…Simeon of Kitron said: The sea was divided for the sake of Joseph's bones. Thus, the sea saw it, and fled (Tehillim 114, 3)-for the sake of [him of whom it is written], AND HE FLED, AND GOT HIM OUT.
In other words, somehow a fundamental piece of the redemption process and a necessary element to split the sea was Yosef HaTzaddik’s presence. A beautiful literary parallel [the sea fled/Yosef fled] is evinced. We seek to understand the midrashic depth.
First consider: Yosef, aged 17, away from parents and friends, finds himself in the Egyptian fleshpot; a remarkable and unlikely ascent has him living amongst royalty, a top officer in Potiphar’s cabinet. Trouble lurks as Mrs. Potiphar desperately wants him. Yosef refuses [Bereishis, 39:8]
But he refused, and he said to his master's wife, "Behold, with me my master knows nothing about anything in the house, and all he has he has given into my hand.
But it is not a one time challenge [Bereishis, 39:10]
Now it came about when she spoke to Joseph day in and day out, that he did not obey her, to lie beside her [and] to be with her.
Indeed, the rare shalshelet note perched atop of Yosef’s refusal implies the ongoing nature of Yosef’s test. The midrash expounds: [Midrash Tanchuma, Vayeshev 5:4]
One will not find one more faithful than Yosef who was in Egypt … and was 17 … and she would entice him with words daily and change her clothing three times a day … all in order that he should be attracted by her and Yosef controlled his yetzer …
The battle however does not end without a fight. [Bereishis, 39:11]
And it came about on a certain day, that he came to the house to do his work, and none of the people of the house were there in the house.
Two midrashic questions: Why point out the obvious [he came to the house to do his work] and where was everyone else?
He went into the house to do his work’ — Rav and Samuel [differ in their interpretation]. One said that it really means to do his work; but the other said that he went to satisfy his desires.‘And there was none of the men of the house etc. — is it possible that there was no man in a huge house like that of this wicked [Potiphar]! — It was taught in the School of R. Ishmael: That day was their feast-day, and they had all gone to their idolatrous temple; but she had pretended to be ill because she thought, I shall not have an opportunity like to-day for Joseph to associate with me.
At the brink of spiritual suicide, Yosef pulls back.
At that moment his father's image came … and said: ‘Joseph, your brothers will have their names inscribed upon the stones of the ephod … do you wish to have your name expunged from theirs and be called an associate of harlots?’
Alas, knowing the triangle does not mean one lives geometry, nor does familiarity with the straight mean that on this path ye trod. Yosef beckons his father’s image and reminds himself of what is right; the act of courage must yet come.
R. Johanan said in the name of R. Meir: … And the arms of his hands were made active — he stuck his hands in the ground so that his lust came out from between his finger-nails.
Yosef summons all his inner strength and is able to control himself. Thus he is Yosef Hatzadik - that particular appellation having a the specific connotation of the one who can control his passion
The God of Israel said, concerning me spoke the Rock of Israel; 'A ruler over men shall be the righteous (man), he that rules in the fear of God.
Our midrashic quid pro quo waxes quite beautiful: Yosef teaches that one (and especially the Jew) is not ultimately bound by nature and predilection; thus his presence forces the sea to overcome its nature.
And what’s with the fingernails? Perhaps, that is the vestige of Adam before the sin, of Adam in control. Thus Yosef takes them and pierced them into the ground, i.e. he rules over his material self and regains control!
A final beautiful insight I heard from Rabbi Shimon Green, shlit”a: The law of conservation of spiritual matter dictates that no spiritual energy is for naught. God stores all the tear drops and Eisav’s cry reverberates through the ages while Paroh’s brief acknowledgement of Hashem’s righteousness attains him eternal reward. And whither all of Yosef’s spiritual energy?
That incredible inner battle that raged within Yosef - that fingernail in the ground cry de coeur – which represented the marshalling of every ounce of Yosef’s complete spiritual persona was stored for generations - until it was time to split the sea – whereupon the Yosef’s torrential inner force was the very energy used by Hashem to force it asunder.
In a world that confuses predilection with prediction and feels weighted down by fate and bound by nature [think dysgraphia, twinkie-defense murder, sexual predilections etc.], the Jews leave Egypt powered by Yosef’s gevurah and the notion that the ultimate redemptive personality is bound to God, but very much in control of his nature.
1. Herein, the beautiful words of Rabbein Bechayei: ויקח משה את עצמות יוסף - בעוד שהיו ישראל משתדלים בצרכי הגוף ומתעסקים בשאלת כסף וזהב היה משה
מתעסק בצרכי הנפש בדבר מצוה וכענין שכתוב (משלי י) חכם לב יקח מצות, והיה ביד יוסף זכות קבורת אביו ולכך זכה בגדול ממנו זה משה ומשה ג"כ זכה בגדול ממנו זה הקב"ה שנאמר (דברים לד) ויקבור אותו בגי, וכבר כתבתי זה בענין יוסף. ועוד מצינו שהוצרך משה לקיים מצוה זו ומטעם מה שדרשו רז"ל בזכות יוסף נקרע הים כתיב הכא (בראשית לט) וינס ויצא החוצה, וכתיב התם (תהלים קיד) הים ראה וינוס, מה ראה עצמותיו של יוסף ראה, ביוסף כתיב (בראשית נ) וינחם אותם וידבר על לבם, ובים כתיב (שמות טו) בלב ים:
2. Here is Kli Yakar’s beautiful formulation [Bereishis, 39:12] – one that ties the beginning of the Jewish exile jouney [Avraham at the brit bein habetarim] and the final step [Yosef at the splitting of the sea] together
: ויכול להיות שמאמר ויצא החוצה היינו חוץ לאצטגנינות שלו, דוגמת ויוצא אותו החוצה הנאמר באברהם
, (בראשית טו ה) כך יצא יוסף חוץ למערכה עד שלא היה כח ביד המערכה לשלוט בו, ואדרבה הוא שלט בדברים הטבעים והמה נסו לקולו, וזהו קריעת ים סוף מפני ארונו של יוסף: