The Bones of Independence (‘Atzmot ha-‘atzma’ut)
Today we celebrate Israel’s Independence Day, Yom ha-‘Atzma’ut. In this essay, I explore one central symbol of independence in the Tanakh – bones, ‘atzamot, signifying the transition towards independence for the nation. Opening the Ibn Shoshan dictionary to the word ‘atzma’ut, one finds the following definition: “ability to stand on one’s own; independence from others; autonomy.” At the root of ‘atzma’ut lies the word ‘etzem – bone. The hardest material within the tender flesh of our human substance, bones enable us to stand upright. Through our bones, our skeleton, we owe allegiance to the vertebrate kingdom – being warm-blooded, enabling homeostasis, the development of an immune system and complex metabolism. That is, our bones grant us greater physiological independence from the environment.
Yet, the first time the word bone appears in the Tanakh, we find an admixture of both independence, ‘atzma’ut, and dependence. To create woman, God took the “side” of Adam and built it up, after inducing a deep sleep (the first general anesthetic). When God presented her to him, the man declared:
This [zot] now [ha-pa‘am] is bone of my bones [‘etzem me‘atzamai]
And flesh of my flesh
This [zot] shall be called ‘woman’
For from ‘man’ this [zot] was taken (Gen. 2:23, my trans.)
At that moment, he recognized that “this one” was both from him, “bone of [his] bone, flesh of [his] flesh,” and yet independent of him. Using the demonstrative pronoun “this” [zot] emphatically three times to punctuate his speech, he signified (like the pointing finger) otherness, separation from himself. Yet he also recognized her as his own, of his substance, of his bone-being [mi‘atzmo]. Her sense of difference or independence derived from her emergence as other than him while, at the same time, she was similar; she mirrored him in bone, in flesh, and in name (isha/ish, woman/man).
Similarly, in the identification of kinship, the term “bone” is evoked to connote identity with another. Laban identifies his affiliation to Jacob in terms of being “of [his] bone” and “of [his] flesh” (Gen. 29:14); Abimelech reminds the people of Shechem that he is of “[their] bone and [their] flesh,” in proclaiming his right to rule over them as king (Judg. 9:2); and the Israelites (of the northern tribes), identify themselves with David as being “of [his] bones and [his] flesh” (2 Sam. 5:1) when they express their desire that he rule over them as well, extending beyond his tribal affiliation with Judah. The expression “of [one’s] bone” and “of [one’s] flesh” sets up a dialectic between, on the one hand, independence, difference, the emergence of one from another as in the birth of woman out of man, Eve from Adam, or child from parent. On the other hand, it harks back to filial ties, tribal alliances, and national identification.
The story of the exhumation of Joseph’s bones upon the Exodus from Egypt presents us with a paradigmatic narrative. In the concluding scene of the Book of Genesis, Joseph exacts an oath from his brothers: “When God surely takes note of you [paqod yifqod etkhem], you shall bring my bones up from here” (Gen. 5:25). The oath is fulfilled on the eve of the Exodus, when Moses takes up the bones of Joseph “who had exacted an oath of the children of Israel saying, ‘God will surely take note of you [paqod yifqod etkhem]: then shall you carry up my bones from here with you” (Exod. 13:19). The repetition of Joseph’s oath, almost verbatim in Exodus, suggests that it is part of the providential plan. This is the last thing Moses does, implying that had he not done so the Israelites might never have been able to leave. The Mekhilta suggests that the Egyptians deliberately hid the burial site of Joseph’s body (ensconced among the mummies of the Egyptian Kings or sunk to the bottom of the Nile in an iron casket), because their sorcerers had predicted that, upon the departure of Joseph’s remains, Egypt would be physically devastated. Yet the Egyptian effort to undermine the oracle was thwarted. And Joseph’s bones rose from the bottom Nile, or were disinterred from ancient tombs, while the mother country writhed. And the Israelite nation emerged as a people from the womb of another people [goy mi-qerev goy] (Deut. 4:34). Ultimately, the oath was fulfilled by Joshua, his descendant (of the tribe of Ephraim), and the bones were buried at Shechem, the ancestral land granted to Joseph before his father’s death (Josh. 24:32; cf. Gen. 48:22). Just as the raising of Joseph’s remains marks a pivotal moment in the nation’s Exodus from Egypt, so the final settlement of his weary bones confirms the nation’s establishment in the Land. Joseph’s bones then represent both the separation from another nation, mother Egypt, and kinship to his own nation, through a link to the ancestral promise, embodied in the flesh-and-bone of peoplehood.
The same promise of the resurrection and interment of lost bones characterizes Ezekiel’s prophecy over the “Valley of the Dry Bones.” While there is debate in the Talmud as to which bones remain scattered, unburied in the Valley (clearly a cursed status), R. Yehuda argues that the prophecy must be read as a parable (b. Sanhedrin 92b). His reading seems closest to the plain meaning, as Ezekiel concludes his prophecy with an exhortation to the community in exile:
Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord (Ezek. 37:12-14, NRSV).
The prophet no longer invokes the image of dry bones in a valley, assembling as sinews and flesh accrue, sewn with new skin, imbued with the spirit/breath/wind (ru’ah) of God like Adam when first enlivened with divine breath (Ezek. 37:9; cf. Gen. 2:7). Here, instead, he calls to the bones lying in open graves. These are the people scattered throughout the Babylonian empire. To them, God promises return to the land of Israel. As Ezekiel draws the stick of Joseph (representing the Northern Kingdom), and places it with the stick of Judah (representing the Southern Kingdom), the two merge, being bone of the same bone, flesh of the same flesh. And God promises to make them, once again, “a single nation in the land, on the hills of Israel…Never again shall they be two nations, and never again shall they be divided into two kingdoms” (Ezek. 37:21, NRSV).
Today we are witnessing the assembly of the dry bones out of the valley of the shadow of death and out of the open graves – out of the Crusades and the banishment from foreign lands, in the wake of pogrom upon pogrom and the Holocaust. Our people, bone-of-our-bone, flesh-of-our-flesh, are returning to the land. It is an amazing vision. And yet it is no longer just a prophetic vision.
There are thirty three bones in the vertebral column. Each of those small bones is critical to the body’s ability to stand upright and each one of us holds the position of one of those small bones. The emergence of Eve from Adam, the birth of the Israelite nation from Egypt, and the return of the Jewish people from the Babylonian exile, all involved both separation and identification in linking one bone to another. Today, may each of us contribute to the assembly of the bones of independence, ‘atzmot ha-‘atzma’ut, individually in our own way, vertebrae by vertebrae.