Parshat Vayehi 5774/December 14, 2013
Parashat Hashavua Study Center
Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University.
"Do not bury me in Egypt"
By Natan Aviezer*
One of the interesting questions raised by Parashat Va-Yehi concerns the burial place of Jacob and Joseph. As Jacob was about to die he called his son Joseph, second in rank to the Pharaoh and a man possessing almost unlimited authority, and requested of him that he be buried in the land of Israel:
"'Do me this favor, place your hand under my thigh as a pledge of your steadfast loyalty; please do not bury me in Egypt. When I lie down with my fathers, take me up from Egypt and bury me in their burial-place.' He [Joseph] replied, 'I will do as you have spoken'" (Gen. 47:29-30). With this explicit declaration by Joseph one could have taken the matter to be closed. But Jacob did not make do with this promise, rather he demanded that Joseph also swear to it: "'Swear to me.' And he swore to him" (Gen. 47:31).
What does this strange demand signify? Why did Joseph's promise not suffice? Why the need for an oath, as well? And one more question: when Joseph was on his death-bed he did not request to be taken for burial in the land of Israel. For the time being he was willing to be buried in Egypt and only requested that when the Israelites leave Egypt for the land of Israel they take his bones with them for final burial in the land of Israel: "So Joseph made the sons of Israel swear, saying, 'When G-d has taken notice of you, you shall carry up my bones from here'" (Gen. 50:25). As we know, the Israelites did not leave until Moses' day, hundreds of years after Joseph's death. Why the wait? Why did Joseph not ask to be buried in the land of Israel forthwith, as Jacob had? How did Jacob's situation differ from Joseph's, requiring that he demand to be buried in the land of Israel immediately, whereas Joseph was willing to wait centuries to be buried there?
The key to these questions lies in understanding Joseph's status in Egypt. When Joseph solved Pharaoh's dreams, he was chosen by the king to be his second-in-command, and thus Joseph's rank exceeded that of all Pharaoh's ministers and advisors. How did they view the man whom Pharaoh had so rapidly promoted to greatness? In their eyes Joseph was an outsider and a criminal who had been sentenced to prison for attempting to rape the wife of a senior Egyptian official. Worst of all, he was a Hebrew. The Torah spells out the Egyptians' attitude towards Hebrews: the second time the brothers came to Egypt, Joseph invited them to dine. The way the tables were set for this meal tells us all: the Egyptians sat at a separate table, not at the table where Joseph's brothers were seated. Why? "For the Egyptians could not dine with the Hebrews, since that would be abhorrent to the Egyptians" (Gen. 43:32). If even eating with the Hebrews was considered abhorrent to the Egyptians, we can well understand how Pharaoh's ministers must have felt when a Hebrew was appointed over them as second in command to the Pharaoh.
Pharaoh's ministers were full of jealousy and hatred towards the Hebrew who had been placed over them and waited for the moment that Joseph would take a false step so that they could blacken his face in Pharaoh's eyes. Joseph could survive in Pharaoh's court only if he acted prudently. He had to prove his loyalty to Egypt time and again and show that in his lofty station his only intention was to serve Pharaoh and to promote the affairs of the Egyptian people.
In this context we can understand why Jacob demanded that Joseph promise on oath not to bury him in Egypt. Joseph being requested to bury his father in the land of Canaan might be interpreted by the Egyptians as an insult: is not the soil of Egypt sufficiently holy for these Hebrews? There was only one way in which Joseph could justify such a request to Pharoah: the oath that he swore to his father: "My father made me swear, saying…Be sure to bury me in the grave which I made ready for myself in the land of Canaan" (Gen. 50:5). This Pharaoh could understand: the devoted son had to keep the oath he made to his elderly father: "And Pharaoh said, 'Go up and bury your father, as he made you promise on oath'" (Gen. 50:6).
This explanation also accounts for Joseph not being able to request that he himself be buried in the land of Israel, for he could not make the argument of a promise made on oath. In order not to jeopardize the delicate relations between him and Pharaoh, he made no request and was buried in Egypt. But of the tribes he requested that when the Holy One, blessed be He, take them out of Egypt, they also take his remains with them for final burial in the land of Israel.
The same argument also explains the strange audience Jacob had with Pharaoh (Gen. 47:7-10):
Joseph then brought his father Jacob and presented him to Pharaoh; and Jacob greeted Pharaoh. Pharaoh asked Jacob, "How many are the years of your life?" And Jacob answered Pharaoh, "The years of my sojourn [on earth] are one hundred and thirty. Few and hard have been the years of my life, nor do they come up to the life spans of my fathers during their sojourns." Then Jacob bade Pharaoh farewell, and left Pharaoh's presence.
Aside from Jacob's polite greetings, required by proper etiquette and protocol, the content of the interchange appears totally devoid of meaning. One has the impression that neither person knew what to say to the other, so they made do with a banal exchange. But Jacob's audience with Pharaoh was very important, not necessarily because of what was said in their conversation, but by the very fact of its existence. The object of the meeting was to show the court that not only Joseph but also his father and all his family were under Pharaoh's protection, as the next verse states: "So Joseph settled his father and his brothers, giving them holdings in the choicest part of the land of Egypt, in the region of Rameses, as Pharaoh had commanded" (Gen. 47:11).
Joseph's lofty station entailed not a few dangers. Throughout the years his position at court was extremely fragile. Only Pharaoh's warm attitude towards him enabled Joseph to survive amidst the Egyptian ministers. The special status of the Israelites in Egypt was based on the chemistry the developed between Joseph and Pharaoh. Little wonder, therefore, that after the death of Joseph and Pharaoh not many years passed before the inevitable reversal took place: a new ruler over Egypt turned the Israelites from a people who enjoyed preferential status into a nation of slaves (Ex. 1:8-14):
A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph…So they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor…The Egyptians ruthlessly imposed upon the Israelites the various labors that they made them perform. Ruthlessly they made life bitter for them with harsh labor at mortar and bricks and with all sorts of tasks in the field.
Sadly, the history of the Jewish people is full of such reversals of fate. We have experienced on our own flesh that even the most amicable policy towards the Jews can in the end turn into hostility.
Translated by Rachel Rowen