Sefer Breishit closes with a very dramatic ending. In the last chapter we read about the death of Yaakov, his burial, the fear of reprisal that the brothers have, leading them to report Yaakov’s instructions to keep the peace, and finally the demise of Yosef. We find two very similar events, the burial of Yaakov and that of Yosef that seem to carry the same message. Neither one wants to their final resting place to be in Egypt and therefore the request by each to be buried in Canaan (what will become Eretz Yisrael).
However, I believe that if we examine the two stories we will find significant differences between them.
When we read the story of Yaakov we find that he actually made his request on two separate occasions. In 47:29-31 he summons Yosef and makes him swear that he will not bury him in Egypt but rather that he will be taken to be buried with his forefathers. In chapter 49, right after he finishes blessing each and every one of his children, he commands them all to bury him in the Mearat Hamachpela, the site of the burial of Avraham, Sarah, Yitzchak, Rivka and Leah. He stresses the exact location of the cave and the legal rights that were purchased by the family.
We need to ask ourselves – what exactly was so pressing to Yaakov in his desire to be buried there? Given the stress that he puts on the historic aspect it would seem that he sees his death, and even burial, as fitting into the puzzle of the Avot – a worldview that made every action in their lives critical and meaningful, as if they were very aware of the adage “Maaseh avot siman lebanim”- the actions of the forefathers are a sign to the descendants. Had Yaakov been buried in Egypt the entire chain of the new nations would have been diverted away from Eretz Yisrael. The very purchase of the cave, in its time, was not a simple real estate transaction nor was it a simple technical solution of how to dispose of the body of Sarah. The purchase was a beachhead in Eretz Yisrael and the symbolic act of burying the founding fathers and mothers there was seen in eternal terms. The cave serves as an anchor and is treated as such by Yaakov in his request to be buried there. Rashi understands that this was exactly the Divine promise made to Yaakov as he journeyed to Egypt to meet Yosef. God told him not to fear as He would accompany him to Egypt and He would bring him back as well. Yaakov lived outside of Eretz Yisrael for many years but it is clear that his center of gravity was Eretz Yisrael.
Yaakov bolsters his request in two ways. Firstly, he makes Yosef actually swear to carry out his wish and he clearly stipulates that it be done at once. (Many of the commentaries understand both points as a service to Yosef, forcing him into a commitment that was so strong that the Egyptians would be forced to agree to.)
Yosef, on the other hand, is very different. Fifty four years go by in the final pesukim of Breishit until Yosef is about to die at the age of 110. Before his death he also invokes swearing to have him buried in Eretz Yisrael, but we are missing an important element – why did he want this? Yosef does not tell us what inspired him to make such a request. One would imagine that his father’s voice echoed in the background and served as the role model. I think it is very significant that Yosef does not articulate this himself. I wonder if Yosef could make the same impassioned pleas as his father made. Yosef left Eretz Yisrael as a very young man and invested his entire adult life in the development of Egypt. I think that today it is very easy for us to identify with Yosef’s crisis of identity. On the one hand he was very aware of his heritage, both in a positive manner and most likely he was reminded of being an outsider by the native Egyptians as well. On the other hand he was very absorbed into the Egyptian society. He was the Egyptian society. He made policy for the country, he married into the higher echelons and there are those that claim that his children even bore local names. Indeed, he himself had a Pharaoh given Egyptian name. Yosef was Egyptian as well as being a member of the Jacobian clan.
This ambivalence describes our attitude today to a great extent. The very fact that I am writing a shiur on the parsha in English as it is my mother tongue, and the readers are reading it all over the globe, is proof to the point. Our Jewish identity is very strong, however many of us also possess a strong additional identity.
When Yosef asks to be buried in Eretz Yisrael he does not make an impassioned plea to send him home. He does not insist that it be done immediately. His request is what can be described as “for when the Moshiach comes”. God will redeem you and then take me with you. I do not doubt Yosef’s faith at all – I think he was a firm believer in the geula – but in the meantime he would see things out in Egypt.
The last three words are very telling in this respect. “He was placed in a casket in Egypt.” This is the quintessential symbol of Egypt! Up to this very day the Egyptian style of burial is unique and very long lasting. The mummified corpses of thousands of years ago can be seen in many museums. In order to facilitate Yosef’s request of reburial at some future time in a far away place the burial style had to be very Egyptian! Throughout Tanach many people are buried but the use of a casket of any type is almost unheard of. Even in his death Yosef very clearly demonstrates the schizophrenic attitude of the Jewish people who have had to grow up and lead their adult lives far from Eretz Yisrael.
We close the sefer of Breishit with galut. We look forward to learning about the geulah in Shemot which will create a whole new type of Jews. We will meet those that have no connection to Eretz Yisrael at all except of it being a family tradition and a distant dream. The Torah provides many models for us to learn from. Thank God we live in a time that we can adopt almost any model we choose. It is up to us.