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Burial Choices

Vayehi 5776/ 26 December 2015

December 26, 2015

A friend once told me how his uncle — a well-respected Orthodox rabbi — sought another rabbi’s opinion about where to be buried. He had the opportunity to purchase a burial plot on Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives, the premier Jewish burial site in the world because of its proximity to the Temple Mount; but he also already owned a plot alongside his parents, and he wanted to know which option to take. Perhaps surprisingly, the answer came back that, given the choice, it is better to be buried together with one’s family, and especially one’s parents, than in a more religiously significant place. Of course, Jacob faces a simpler choice in this morning’s parshah; in his case, the burial place of his parents and grandparents was, intrinsically, a holy site as well. Still, Jacob’s burial instructions contain more than might appear at first glance. In the same breath that he asks Joseph to bury him alongside his ancestors, he adds the apparently superfluous request, “Do not bury me in Egypt.”[1] Since we already know — as Joseph surely knew — that Jacob’s ancestors were buried in Canaan, why does Jacob need to specify that he should not be buried in Egypt?

Rabbi Ovadia Sforno, the medieval Italian Torah commentator, writes that Jacob worries if he is buried in Egypt even temporarily, the Egyptians will prevent the return of his remains to Canaan by arguing that he has received a proper burial — at least by their standards — and nothing more is necessary.[2] Joseph’s tentative approach to Pharaoh, when the time comes to fulfill his father’s wishes,[3] suggests the difficulty he expected in securing Pharaoh’s agreement. Joseph, and perhaps Jacob as well, is not entirely certain that the Egyptians will allow Jacob’s burial in Canaan; and as we will see shortly, there is a lot more than one funeral at stake here.

Each of our Patriarchs had a unique relationship to the Land of Israel. Abraham, born elsewhere, resettled in Canaan; with the exception of a very brief trip to Egypt, he spent his adult life in the land God promised to his descendants. Isaac, born to Abraham in the Promised Land, remained rooted in place throughout his entire life. Joseph grew up in Canaan, but lived out his adulthood in Egypt. Only Jacob experiences cycles of exile and return, living on the land, then leaving for years, then returning. As he faced the end of his life, I imagine Jacob must have worried, “If I don’t go back — even after my days on earth have ended — why should my grandchildren bother to go back in life?” Jacob’s burial in Canaan stands as an act of faith: he goes back to the ancestral homeland now, alone, so that his descendants will come back in due time.

But what about Joseph? Given his father’s attachment to their ancestral homeland, how can Joseph actually request that his brothers bury him in Egypt? Joseph, like his father, goes beyond merely stating his burial preferences; he makes the others swear a solemn oath to take his bones to the Land of Israel when — and only when — God brings them up from Egypt. The use of oaths in both places highlights the critical nature of their requests. We already understood Jacob’s oath as symbolizing his eternal connection to the land, and his faith that his descendants will one day return; the oath Joseph imposes upon the others must likewise reflect his core values. 

When I discussed our parshah with my teacher, Reb Mimi Feigelson, earlier this week, she suggested that we can understand Jacob and Joseph as partners in ensuring the ongoing survival of the Jewish People. In a sense, Joseph can stay in Egypt precisely because Jacob did not. The two patriarchs serve the same goal through different paths; Jacob returned to Canaan to establish the future goal, return to the Land of Israel, while Joseph made sure his body would stay in Egypt to give strength to the Israelites in the present. As Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch points out, Joseph’s assurance פָּקֹד יִפְקֹד אֱ־לֹהִים אֶתְכֶם, “God will surely remember you,”[4] has an ominous tone; even before the outright oppression and torment of the Exodus story, Joseph could already see signs that circumstances would soon turn against his brothers.[5] Under these conditions, Joseph knew that the Israelites would need a beacon of hope, something to remind them that even at our darkest moments we can look for a brighter future; and his own life story, with its cycle of downfall and resurgence, would help them believe — even in the darkest moments of slavery — that a better tomorrow awaited.[6] At the end of a life defined by faith against all odds, Joseph’s final act sought to instill that faith in the generations who followed.[7]

The partnership between Jacob and Joseph allows them to work on the present and future at the same time. Jacob emphasizes the future, insisting on burial in Canaan as if to say to his descendants, “I know you will come back eventually.” At the same time, Joseph focuses on the community’s present needs, declaring “I won’t go until they go with me.” Ultimately, the alignment of these two worldviews — Jacob, building for the future; Joseph, tending to the present — allows for the continued thriving of the Jewish people, throughout history, now, and always.

[1]        Gen. 47:29.

[2]        Sforno, Gen. 47:29.

[3]        Gen. 50:4-6.

[4]        Gen. 50:25.

[5]        The Hirsch Chumash, tr. Daniel Haberman, Gen. 50:25.

[6]        Menahem Ben-Zion Sacks, Menahem Zion, Vayehi.

[7]        See, especially, Rav Hirsch’s observation that וַיַּשְׁבַּע יוֹסֵף אֶת־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל means that the oath became binding on all generations of the Jewish people (Gen. 50:25).

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