parasha

Future Goal and Present Existence – Vayechi

Future Goal and Present Existence – Vayechi
Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, Rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites

Following this week’s parasha, Vayechi, we complete the book of Genesis, the stories of our forefathers, and move on to the stories of our nation in the book of Exodus.  In this week’s Torah portion, we read about the death of Jacob, and then later, about the death of his beloved son, Joseph, who led the family during the decades following Jacob’s death.

There is a lot of similarity between Jacob and Joseph.  It begins with the midrash comment on the verse “And Israel loved Joseph more than all his sons, because he was a son of his old age” (Genesis 37, 3).  The midrash wonders about a simple question: Joseph was not Jacob’s youngest son.  After Rachel gave birth to him, she had his younger brother, Benjamin.  Many answers were given for this question, but the midrash chose to explain the term “son of his old age” as hinting at the similarity in their appearance (Genesis Raba, ch. 84).

Jacob’s and Joseph’s life stories are also amazingly similar.  They both find themselves in a foreign country following an altercation with their brothers; they both work for a foreign master, etc.  One interesting comparison stands out in this week’s parasha.  Before they died, both make the sons of Jacob, the brothers of Joseph, take a vow regarding their future burial site.

Before he died, Jacob made his sons take a vow:

“And he commanded them and said to them, ‘…bury me with my fathers, in the cave that is in the field of Ephron the Hittite, in the cave that is in the field of Machpelah, which is before Mamre in the land of Canaan, which field Abraham bought from Ephron the Hittite for burial property. There they buried Abraham and his wife Sarah, there they buried Isaac and his wife Rebecca, and there I buried Leah.’”

(Genesis 49, 29–31)

Notice how detailed Jacob gets in describing the location of the Cave of the Patriarchs (Me’arat Hamachpelah) and the family history linked with the cave.  A discerning reader recognizes that Jacob is trying to convey a message.  But before analyzing Jacob’s words, let’s compare them with Joseph’s:

Joseph said to his brothers, "I am going to die; G-d will surely remember you and take you up out of this land to the land that He swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob…and you shall take up my bones out of here."

(Ibid 50, 24-25)

As opposed to Jacob who demanded that his sons not bury him in Egypt, but take him immediately after this death to the Cave of the Patriarchs, Joseph does not request that his brothers take his body to Canaan and bury him there right away.  He asks that when the day comes, when G-d takes them out of Egypt to the land of their forefathers, they should take the coffin with his bones to Canaan.  And that is what happened. Years later, when G-d took the Jewish people out of Egypt, Moses took Joseph’s coffin in order to transfer it for burial in Canaan (Exodus 13, 19).  Joseph’s coffin was indeed buried in the Land of Israel, as described in Joshua (24, 32) in a site identified to this day as Joseph’s Tomb in the city of Shechem.

Jacob asked to be buried in the Land of Israel, and specified to his sons where he wants to be buried.  He even describes the deep connection between the fathers of the family and this burial site – the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, which also obviously serves as a place of prayer and significantly central site for the Jewish nation.  Jacob wanted to show his sons where they should aim to get to someday.  They were in Egypt, but their forefathers were in the Land of Israel waiting for them.  That was where the family/nation had roots and to there they should set their sights.

In contrast, Joseph wanted to stay with the nation.  If the nation was still in Egypt, he wanted to stay with them.  When the nation was leaving Egypt, he wanted to leave with them.  Joseph remained among his brothers and wanted to remain an eternal source of inspiration and hope.

Jacob pointed to the future goal while Joseph pointed to present existence. The goal is significant, we focus on it.  But existence in the present is not less important.  We are Jews also today, not only in the future.  Even if we are living within another nation and a foreign culture – there, too, we need inspiration and hope. 

 

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