For many people, a major aspect of life is looking for the "essence." What does it mean? they ask, what does it really mean? The questioners might be teenagers looking cynically and quizzically at the world around them, students at university, backpackers in the Far East, housewives in the pay queue in a supermarket, businessmen at the end of a day in the office, senior citizens musing on a park bench. The person and the location might differ, but the question is the same: What is the essence of it all? What does it mean?

This week's Torah portion provides a valuable clue. The Jewish people are at last leaving Egypt, where they have been enslaved for many years. Now they will be traveling towards the Land of Israel. At this point the Torah tells us, "And Moses took the bones of Joseph along with him."1

Joseph, viceroy of Egypt, had requested of his brothers that after his demise, when they would finally leave Egypt, they would take his remains with them for eventual burial in the Holy Land.

This tells us of the centrality of the Land of Israel in the consciousness of the Jewish people. Yet the term used — "bones of Joseph" — sounds a little intriguing. In fact, this is the word used by Joseph himself, before he died: "G‑d will redeem you and you should take my bones with you."2 Why the emphasis on bones? Surely a more elegant expression could have been used, something a little more respectful?

Nothing in the Torah is without reason, and this expression too has a lesson to teach us.

In Hebrew the word for bones (atzamot) is closely related to the word for "essence" (atzmiut). The "bones" of Joseph means the physical skeleton of Joseph, the framework of the body. The "essence" of Joseph means his spiritual makeup, the framework of the soul. Moses took the casket containing the remains of Joseph's body in order to bury him in the Land of Israel, and he also took the essence of Joseph.

So what then is this essence of Joseph that Moses took with him? It is the striving to love and to care for another: to bring closer those who feel that they are far.

Why is this the essence of Joseph? When Joseph was born he was given his name by his mother Rachel, who said: "Let G‑d add to me another son."3 Joseph (Yosef in the Hebrew) means "add". The literal meaning of this was a prayer to have a second son, but Chassidic teachings explain that this provides the inner meaning of Joseph's name and his entire being: to help each person be added and included among the Jewish people, and especially that individual who feels that he or she is "other" and remote from the community.

This is the essence of Joseph, and the everlasting legacy he left to Moses and the Jewish people: to devote ourselves to make "another" into a "son." To find those who feel distant and help them connect to their roots. To love and to care.

This is the essence which Moses and the Jewish people took with them, as they left the Egyptian exile and began their journey towards the Holy Land. This is our essence too, as we are poised to leave our Exile on the journey to Redemption. It is the essence of Judaism and of life.4