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Vayechi 5771-2010

“A Very Imposing Camp”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayechi, the patriarch Jacob passes away at age 147 and is brought to Hebron for burial in Ma’arath Hamachpaleh, the tomb of the patriarchs.

Although Pharaoh agrees to allow Joseph and his brothers to leave Egypt in order to return Jacob’s body to the land of Canaan for burial, as Jacob had made Joseph promise, the departure is delayed. Because of the delay, Joseph himself orders his servants and the court physicians to embalm his father’s body, something that is normally against Jewish practice today. Apparently, Joseph understood that there would be a very long (40 day) period of national Egyptian mourning for Jacob. This, in addition to the long journey back to Canaan, would certainly cause Jacob’s body to begin to decompose.  It was, therefore, Joseph’s calculated decision to protect his father’s dignity that resulted in his having the body embalmed.

Jacob was clearly deeply revered by the Egyptians, and the mourning for him was intense. Even after the 40 days of mourning for Jacob in Egypt concluded, the Egyptians mourned for Jacob again, once his body reached Canaan. The mourning was so intense that the Canaanites who witnessed it called the location “Aivel Mitzrayim,” literally, the mourning of Egypt.

Apparently, the Egyptians had recognized that it was only in Jacob’s merit that the land of Egypt had been blessed with special abundance during his sojourn there. The Midrash states that as long as Jacob was alive in Egypt, there were no miscarriages, no aches, no pains, not even toothaches. But, when Jacob died, the blessings that had so greatly benefited Egypt suddenly vanished and the travails returned. No wonder Jacob was so deeply mourned.

Reflecting the great respect that the Egyptians had for Jacob, the Torah informs us in Genesis 50:9, “Va’ya’ahl ee’mo gahm reh’chev, gahm pa’ra’sheem, vy’hee ha’ma’cha’neh ka’ved m’ohd” and he [Joseph, who was going to bring his father] brought up with him both chariots and horsemen; and the camp was very imposing. Clearly, the Egyptians wished to demonstrate respect for Jacob, who was acknowledged as great and wise by the Egyptians and in whose merit the famine had ended prematurely. That is why Genesis 50:7 informs us that when Joseph went up to bury his father, in addition to the chariots and horsemen, Joseph was accompanied by all of Pharaoh’s servants, the elders of his households, and all the elders of the land of Egypt.

There is, however, one subtle allusion in the biblical text that seems to indicate that the great Egyptian retinue was not merely to accord respect and honor to Jacob, but for an entirely different purpose. In Genesis 50:8, we are told that all of Joseph’s household, his brothers’ and his father’s household, went up to Canaan to accompany the entourage, “Rahk ta’pahm v’tzohn’ahm uv’kah’rahm ahz’voo b’eretz Goshen,” only their little ones, their sheep and their cattle were left behind in the land of Goshen. Could this possibly be because the Egyptians wanted to make certain that Joseph, their great savior, and the man who controlled their country and the economy, would not desert them and remain in Canaan? Is that why the children were not permitted to leave? Were they possibly left behind to serve as hostages and guarantors, to insure the return of the mourners. In fact, Eliyahu Kitov notes that Joseph was surrounded by 43,000 Egyptian horsemen and 43,000 chariot drivers from every side so that he wouldn’t be able to escape.

The Ramban concludes otherwise, suggesting that it was Joseph who insisted that the Egyptian armed forces accompany the Hebrews to Canaan, because he suspected that Esau and his sons might attack Jacob’s family. In fact, according to the Midrash, Joseph’s fear was well-founded, because Esau and his forces did attack, trying to prevent Jacob’s burial in the last grave in the patriarchs’ burial plot. According to the Midrash, as a result of Esau’s determined efforts to prevent the burial of Jacob, Chushim the son of Dan, killed Esau, thus fulfilling Rebecca’s prediction when she said (Genesis 27:45), “Why should I be bereaved of both of you [Esau and Jacob] on the same day?”

At the conclusion of the burial, Scripture informs us (Genesis 50:14), “Va’yah’shahv Yosef Mitzry’mah, hoo v’eh’chav v’chol ha’olim ee’toh lik’bohr et ah’veev,” that Joseph returned to Egypt, he and his brothers and all those who had gone up with him to bury his father. The commentators note that on the original journey from Egypt to Canaan, the Egyptians led the procession (Genesis 57:7) and are therefore mentioned first, but here it seems as if Joseph and his brothers are mentioned first, followed by the rest of the cortege.

Again, there is a difference of opinion among those who note the change in marching positions. Some commentators suggest that when the Egyptians beheld the great honor that was accorded Jacob by his sons at the funeral, they yielded to them on the way home, allowing them to lead the procession home as a sign of respect, and therefore the family of Jacob is mentioned first. However, there are those who see in the changed processional lineup an additional attempt by the Egyptians to make certain that no Jew would be left behind in Canaan, and that every last one of these valuable Hebrew citizens return to Egypt.

Ironically, the ancient scene that played out between Jacob’s family and the Egyptians seems to be very similar to what Jews encounter today in their relations with the gentile world. Often, it is hard to discern whether the non-Jewish world loves us or hates us. Or perhaps they are trying to love us to death?

Surely, there is much anti-Semitism in the world today, and hatred of Jews seems to be constantly growing, resulting in much fear and stress among Jews. But it certainly could be argued that the love and respect that the gentile world seems to have for Jews today is a far greater threat to Jewish survival than the physical threats.

It is always amazing to see how often contemporary themes appear in the ancient biblical texts. Sometimes, the answers to these challenges and their solutions are quite clear. In this instance, it is difficult to know which way to turn. Perhaps regarding the love and hatred of the outside world for Jews, it’s best to be constantly vigilant.

May you be blessed.

Please note: The fast of the 10th of Tevet will be observed this Friday, December 17, 2010 from dawn to nightfall. It commemorates the start of the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, which led to the ultimate destruction of the Temple on the 9th of Av.

Have a meaningful fast.