[This address was given in a Holocaust commemoration, which was held in the early post-war years, on the 10th of Tevet.]
Yosef, as his death approached, instructed Bnei Yisrael: "Hashem will certainly redeem you, and you shall take my bones out of here with you" (Shemot 13:19). In addition to the purpose of getting his remains out of Egypt and into Eretz Yisrael, there is a point hinted at by an added word [in Parashat Beshalach, not Vayechi] – "itchem (with you)." Yosef, the great dreamer, wanted his bones and memory to accompany the people, so that the redeemed nation might learn from him.
The gemara (Sota 13a) says: "The two arks, of the Divine Presence (including the Tablets) and of Yosef (his coffin), were travelling one beside the other, and they would say: ‘This one kept what it is says in this one.’" It is not sufficient to have the first ark, containing the written law. Sometimes a person thinks that it is easy to write what needs to be done, but it is much more difficult and powerful to show that the ideal can actually be carried out in real life. That is what Yosef’s coffin (the second ark) taught. Yosef had been a living sefer Torah, sacrificing safety and success and being ready to sit in jail in order to preserve his moral purity. This example is something that cannot be learned by the written law itself.
While all of Bnei Yisrael were busy collecting the spoils that the Egyptians left at the Splitting of the Sea, Moshe was busy tending to Yosef’s coffin (Mechilta, Beshalach). Moshe was doing so because he knew that Yosef’s coffin contained the secret of the success of the nation. This liberation was a consistent result of Jewish stubbornness not to compromise our principles and the belief that some time on the horizon the liberation would come. This is what Yosef represented.
Regarding the holy martyrs of the Holocaust, we did not even merit to see the coffin or the bones of so many. We did not merit to eulogize these people individually, and we do not even know the day of death of so many. At least, though, we must never forget their memory and the pure and righteous path that so many led. If we think we can draw a line in history and begin national history again from the new national life that we are experiencing in Israel, without basing it on the rich Jewish history of the past, we are making a terrible mistake. We must remember the stubborn guarding of the principles of Judaism and the willingness to put up with discrimination and even death in order to preserve them. We have to take Moshe’s approach and realize that it is important for us to tend to and learn from their memory.
The metaphorical coffin of the modern Yosefs also must remind us that we cannot put our faith in the nations of the world and expect that they will help us. Even with the connections that Yosef had in the highest echelons, the best he could do was to promise: "Hashem will certainly redeem you." The martyrs’ memory also has to remind us that even the most cultured nation in the world can end up being the source of the must brutal atrocities that the world has ever known.