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Vayechi 5762-2001

“The Debate: Burial In The Land of Israel”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This coming week’s parasha, parashat Vayechi, concludes the book of Bereshit, Genesis. Parashat Vayechi includes the requests of two great leaders, Jacob and Joseph, to be buried in the land of Israel rather than in Egypt.

In the opening verses of our parasha, at age 147, Jacob calls his son Joseph and asks (Genesis 47:29): “Im nah mah’tzah’tee chain b’ay’neh’chah, sim nah yad’chah tah’chat y’ray’chee, v’ah’see’tah ee’mah’dee chesed v’emet. Al nah tik’b’ray’nee b’mitzrayim.” If I have found favor in your eyes, says Jacob to Joseph, place your hand under my thigh, and do kindness and truth with me. Please do not bury me in Egypt! Jacob instructs Joseph that after he dies, he must transport his father’s body out of Egypt and bury him in the patriarchal tomb in Hebron.

Joseph agrees, telling Jacob that he will do as he said. This is not enough for old Jacob. (Genesis 47:31), “Hee’shav’ah lee,” swear to me, Jacob insists. Having no choice, Joseph swears that he will do as Jacob has requested.

According to Rashi, Jacob had specific reasons not to be buried in Egypt. 1) Jacob had been informed through prophecy that the soil of Egypt would be stricken with lice during the ten plagues. 2) He also knew that those who were buried outside of the land of Israel will not come to life immediately at resurrection, since they must first roll through the earth to arrive at the land of Israel. 3) Jacob did not want the Egyptians to turn his tomb into an object of idol worship. Perhaps most importantly, Jacob wanted to establish the principle for future Jewish generations that the land of Israel was central to their heritage, no matter how successful or comfortable they might be in exile.

At the conclusion of parashat Vayechi, Joseph too, at the end of his life, prophesied that G-d would remember the Jewish people, would take them out of Egypt, and restore them to the land that He (G-d) promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Consequently, Joseph makes the children of Israel promise, saying (Genesis 50:25): “Pah’kod yif’kod Eloh’kim et’chem, va’ha’ah’lee’tem et atz’mo’tai mee’zeh,” G-d will surely remember you. You must bring my bones up out of here. Joseph knew that, being the exalted personage he was in Egypt, his brothers and his children would not be in a position to bury him in the land of Israel immediately after his death. He was well aware of the fact that the leaders of Egypt would simply not let his body out of Egypt. But Joseph made certain, that when the time came for the people of Israel to leave Egypt, they would take his remains with them to be buried in Israel in the city of Shechem.

These two narratives underscore for us the powerful love and commitment that both Jacob and Joseph had for the land of Israel. While Jacob was always a reluctant sojourner in Egypt, it is surprising that despite Joseph’s prestigious position in Egypt, he too insists on being buried in Israel. The Midrash Rabbah in Deuteronomy 2:8 informs us that it was Joseph’s strong identity as a Jew which made him deserving of being buried in Israel. The Midrash says: Said Moshe: Why should I not be buried in the land, after all, Joseph’s remains are being brought in to the land? Answered the Holy One: One who acknowledges his land is buried in it; one who does not acknowledge his land is not buried in it. Joseph said (Genesis 40:15): “I was kidnapped from the land of the Hebrews” But when you (Moshe) were identified by the daughters of Jethro as “an Egyptian rescued us” (Exodus 2:19), you heard it and acquiesced!

There is a fascinating debate in Jewish tradition about the propriety of being buried in Israel. In favor of burial in Israel is the citation found in Midrash Rabbah, Genesis 96. The question is asked: Why do the patriarchs insist on being buried in Israel? Rabbi Joshua the son of Levi said because of the verse in Psalms 116:9, “I shall walk before G-d in the land of the living” underscoring that the land of Israel is the land of the living.

We also find in this same Midrash a negative attitude towards those who seek to be buried in the land of Israel after their death. The Midrash says that Rabbi Barkiriah and Rabbi Elazar were walking in the land of Israel near the city of Tiberias, and saw a coffin that had arrived from outside Israel to be buried in the Holy Land. Rabbi Barkiriah said to Rabbi Elazar: What’s the use of this one who died outside of Israel and seeks to be buried in Israel? Concerning one like him the verse in Jeremiah 2:7 says, “And you came and defiled my land and made my inheritance into an abomination.”

The Abarbanel expands on these seemingly disparate views. He writes:

There are many human beings who spend their lives in goodness, studying Torah, engaged in the performance of good deeds, always walking in the light of G-d in the land of the living. Because of their commitment and their wholeness during their lifetimes, they are worthy of being transported after death to the land of Israel to be buried there. These people do not defile the land, for their bodies are objects of holiness, pure and clean. They are destined for the resurrection. These are people worthy of being buried in the land of the living, and they will arise without having to undergo transformation and without pain.

There are others, numerous others, who waste their lives pursuing their lusts and material desires. Even during their lifetimes they are considered “dead.” But when they die, they instruct their children to give charity and gifts to the poor, things they didn’t do during while they were alive. They instruct their survivors that they be buried, wrapped in talit and tefillin, despite the fact that they wore all sorts of prohibited garments during their lifetimes. There are among them those who instruct their survivors to transport their bones for burial in Israel, while during their lifetimes they were distant, and treated the land with contempt. During their lives they were wicked, but suddenly at death they become righteous, fulfilling all the mitzvot. It is well known that this is unacceptable, because only live people can do mitzvot, and not the dead. Our rabbis have said concerning the verse (Job 3:19): “And the servant is free from his master,” that when a person dies he becomes free, he is no longer required to perform mitzvot. It was with regard to such people that Rav Elazer said, “During your lives you never went up to Israel, and now in death you come to defile my land?”

We Jews plead with the Al-mighty every single day in the second blessing of the Sh’ma prayer as well as in the Birkat Hamazon (Grace after meals): “V’toleechay’nu ko’may’me’yut l’ar’tzaynu,” Lead us upright to our land. To my mind, “upright” means while we are still in a vertical position, able to walk, able to contribute–not in a horizontal position, in a coffin! Of all the hundreds of generations of Jews who preceded us, our generation is the one most able of fulfilling the wish of “L’shana habah bee’rushalayim.” Next Year in Jerusalem must not be merely an empty vacuous slogan. It should be meaningful. It should become reality!

May you be blessed.