parasha

Vayechi 5778

Sanctification of Death or Freedom of Man? Parashat Vayechi
Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, Rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites
 
This week’s Torah portion of Vayechi, the last of the book of Genesis, tells of Jacob’s death and his parting from his sons before he died.  Jacob’s twelve sons gathered around their father’s bed and listened to his last words which included special blessings for each one of them and various hints about their future.  But before that, Jacob parted from his beloved son Joseph, making him vow to fulfill his last will which was composed of one directive: to bury him at the burial site of his forefathers – Me’arat Hamachpela, the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron in the Land of Israel.
 

Actually, that one directive included two requests that combined to create one directive.  The first request that Jacob made of his son Joseph was:
 “…do not bury me now in Egypt.”
And the second request was:
“I will lie with my forefathers…and you shall bury me in their grave." 
(Genesis 47, 29-30)
Biblical commentators who discerned this division, explained that first Jacob requested that Joseph not bury him in Egypt, and then continued to request that Joseph bury him in the Cave of the Patriarchs.  The practical significance of this division is that even if for some reason it is not possible to bury Jacob in the Cave of the Patriarchs, he should still not be buried in Egypt.
It is easy to understand Jacob’s desire to be buried in his forefathers’ burial site.  But why was Jacob so opposed to being buried in Egypt? The sages of the midrash, and the great commentator Rashi, suggested several reasons for Jacob’s request, one of which was that Jacob feared that the Egyptian nation would turn his grave into an idolatrous site.
Death rituals were a major element of Egyptian culture and Jacob refused to take part in it, even if indirectly.  As in many other places in the Bible, here too we see the bitter struggle waged by Judaism against idolatry.  Until today, Judaism continues to wage this fight though the concept of idols has many disguises and takes on many shapes.
Ancient Egyptian culture, and many other idolatrous cultures, sanctified death and made it a focus.  This led to rituals of mummification and the building of monumental burial structures, some of which – like the pyramids – remain standing until today in Giza near Cairo.  Judaism, however, wishes to distance death from life, forbidding any connection between the bodies of the deceased and worship in the Temple; so much so that a person who was in a house with a dead body was strictly forbidden from entering the Temple Mount complex in Jerusalem where the Temple stood until he had undergone a complex process of purification.
This difference between Judaism and other idolatrous religions and cultures is not coincidental.  It stems from the attitude toward man and his life.  A culture that sanctifies death is one that views man as lacking freedom and a moral purpose.  As such, the passive state of death becomes man’s basic existential stance.  This position exists today as well, not in its original form expressed through various rituals, but as “scientific” attempts to describe man as a deterministic creation incapable of fulfilling a purpose or moral role.
Judaism, on the other hand, sees man in a different light.  The Rambam (Maimonides), the greatest Jewish philosopher and rabbinical authority of the Middle Ages, describes the belief in the freedom and free choice of man as “the pillar of Torah and mitzvah”, emphasizing that “The Creator does not impose on humans to do good or bad, but everything is available to them” (Mishna Torah, Hilchot Tshuva, chapter 5).  This perspective positions death as a tragedy since man is capable of taking advantage of his life to be moral and advance values of truth and righteousness – so much so that Judaism strives to obliterate the term death, as said by the Prophet Isaiah when describing the utopian future when “He has concealed death forever, and the Lord God shall wipe the tears off every face” (Isaiah 25, 8).
Praying at the tombs of forefathers and righteous men, which is accepted in Judaism, does not mean sanctifying death and attributing powers to the dead.  The prayers said at these graves are only to God.  The sites are considered sacred because these people were sacred when they were alive.  In the merit of the deeds they did through their free will, their burial sites became places of prayer.
Sanctification of death stands in stark contrast with the values of Judaism because there is no limit to the value attributed by Judaism to human life through faith in his free will and his ability to fulfill his eternal purpose to “repair the world in the Kingdom of God.”

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