Thursday, March 08, 2007

Passover Story: Bones

The next one in the series was for my eldest daughter, who was just in that phase between reading early books and true classics. It lasted about a year, I believe.

This story is written in the style of Louis Sachar's book Holes, an excellent early teenage read. Not only does it speak to the contemporary child about negotiating family, peers, and coming of age, it also has a wickedly clever series of plot devices that connect past and present in rather fantastical ways.

In my story, Moses has to fetch the bones of Joseph before Israel can leave Egypt. According to one version of the midrash, Asher's daughter Serach, one of the only women named as having descended into Egypt with Jacob, is the one who tells Moses that Joseph's bones were secretly sunk into the Nile river.


Moshe hid in the lush green vegetation by the side of the Nile river. Sweat collected on his forehead, dripping slowly down his beat red face. The salt made his skin sting.

Peering out through the brushes, Moshe could see thirty feet of sandy beach, strewn with seaweed, gently sloping down to the banks of the great river. The water swept lazily off downstream. Several Egyptian fishing trawlers were resting at various distances off the shore. It was not these that kept him hidden, however, but a small group of Egyptian fisherman standing on the shore itself, a scant twenty meters from him.

Moshe had been sent by Serach Bat Asher to find and bring back the bones of the great Hebrew, Yosef. No one but Serach had known that taking these bones were the key to their freedom from slavery. No one but Serach had known where these bones were hidden. Apparently, no one but Moshe could go and get them. Moshe crouched in the greenery, staring out at the powerful fisherman, shifting his feet back and forth to keep his circulation going, and wondering "Why me?". It was not the first time he had asked himself that question. With a sigh, he admitted to himself that it would probably not be the last.

Who am I? he asked himself. I'm nobody, that's who. Moshe was overwhelmed by a deep sense of shame. Everyone thinks I'm so special, he thought. They all say, 'There goes that miracle worker, Moshe'. I keep telling them, it's not me. I'm not doing anything, but they don't believe me. Moshe felt bitter tears mixing with his salty sweat. He wiped his face with the sleeve of his robe. The more the people heaped praise on him, the more Moshe felt undeserving of any praise at all.

Stop thinking about it, he told himself. You have to get these bones, or we can't go free. Moshe did not really understand why that was, but he trusted Serach. He steeled himself, and looked out again at the fisherman.

How am I supposed to find these bones, anyway. They're sunk in the mud at the bottom of the Nile. What am supposed to do? I can't even swim. He frowned. I can't even get near the shore with these fisherman in the way. Moshe was afraid of the Egyptians. He wasn't sure how many knew him by sight, but he didn't want to take the chance. Considering what God had done to them over the last year, all attributed to him, of course, he knew that there was no lack of ill-feeling towards him. So he sat in the bushes waiting for them to leave.

The fisherman on the bank reeled in their lines, and cast them out again. They were talking to each other.

"Did you hear the latest, P'tah?" said one.

"No," Ram. "You mean the latest threat from that Hebrew priest guy?" said P'tah. He looked around nervously. "What now?"

Ram laughed. "Get this. He said his God is going to make the sun go out! Can you believe it?" Ram laughed again. He cast his line back

"And why do you laugh, Ram? Haven't his threats come true, so far?"

"Oh come on!" said Ram. "Put the sun out? I think Ra, blessed be his name, might have something to say about that. You know, Ra, the Sun God?" Ram gave another laugh. P'tah didn't answer. His face looked serious. Ram looked at him, contemptuously.

"Surely you don't believe this Hebrew more than you believe Ra? I don't think it is one Hebrew doing this, anyway. I think all the Hebrews are doing it, somehow. I never trusted those lice, anyway." Ram spit into the river. "Swine."

Moshe sat fretting in the bushes. He knew he had to hurry, but he wasn't getting anywhere. He knew what a fool he would look like if he came back without the bones. He whispered, "God, I know you're out there. If you want me to get these bones, you need to help me. I don't know what else I can do." Moshe closed his eyes, fervently praying. He stayed like that for good five minutes, when he heard a noise from the fisherman, and he opened his eyes again.

Ram and P'tah were straining trying to pull in their fishing lines.

"We've got a big fish here, P'tah!" exclaimed Ram. Moshe let out a sigh of frustration.

"That's no fish," said P'tah. Moshe looked up again. The fishing lines were now almost in. At the end of the lines was not a large fish, but a large muddy rotting wooden box.

"Ach. What a waste," said Ram. "Bring it in, and let's cut our lines off of it." They hauled the box closer, until they could get their hands under it. Then they lifted it over to the shore.

"What do you think is in it?" asked Ram. "Maybe there's treasure in it."

"It's rotting. It's falling apart. It's probably just mud," said P'tah. "It's not worth anything."

"It's mine," said a new voice.

P'tah and Ram both turned to look at Moshe, who was now standing ten feet away, his shaking hands hidden under his robes. Moshe stared at them with a determined face, silently trying to not to let his fear register in his eyes. He glanced once to the box the fishermen were carrying, and then back to P'tah and Ram, keeping a steady gaze and no expression on his face.

"What did you say, slave?" sneered Ram. Moshe was dressed in priestly garments. Ram knew that he was not a slave, but his prejudice against all Hebrews was plainly written on his face.

"I mean, uh, master" Moshe fumbled, and then continued, "it belongs to master Sari, the Pharaoh's chief servant. Master Sari sent me to retrieve it personally," he lied.

Ram snarled. "What does the chief servant of Pharaoh want with a rotting box of mud. Why should I believe you? Maybe it has something of value in it, after all." His eyes began to gleam, and he moved his hand toward the box.

"Probably something to do with the curse, I think, master," Moshe said. Ram's hand froze in mid-gesture. "My master's specialty is ancient curses, as you surely know, master" Moshe concluded, bowing.

Ram's eyes narrowed. "And why should I believe you, slave?"

"Oh, just give it to him, Ram," said P'tah. "It's just an old box. An old rotting box" He looked at Moshe. "He's just an old man, Ram. Give him the box."

Ram scowled a moment longer, and then shrugged. "Here, slave. Take your box." He kicked it towards Moshe.

"Please be careful with it, master," Moshe said, looking concerned. "My master will be displeased with me if it gets damaged."

"Oh, really," said Ram, with a wicked look on his face. He gave the box a hard kick, breaking off a piece from the bottom corner. Mud oozed out. "That would be a shame." He gave a loud, harsh laugh. Moshe cried out.

"Stop it, Ram!" yelled P'tah. "Take your box and go, Hebrew." P'tah gave Moshe a nervous look. Then he took hold of the laughing Ram and led him further down the beach.

Moshe bent down to the box. It looked like nothing more than a box of mud. Down at the corner of the box, where Ram had broken it, mud was still oozing out. Maybe there's nothing in it, thought Moshe. Maybe it was all for nothing. Maybe I was wrong. Moshe began to panic. In a moment, however, as the mud began draining more slowly, he could discern a small dirty hard lump sticking slightly out through the mud. It looked like a bone. Moshe carefully tucked it back into the box.

He lifted the box from the end that was not broken and waited until the mud seeping out had slowed to a bare trickle. Then he turned around and hefted it onto his back. He began the long journey back to his village. As he entered the vegetation on the side of the river, he stopped. He stood for a moment in thought. Then he looked up and whispered, "Thank you." He waited another moment, and then continued on his way.

Yehuda Berlinger

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