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What a downer to end a book of the Torah like this...

Thursday, 9 January, 2020 - 7:23 pm


 “Yosef died, and he was placed in a coffin in Egypt.”  What a way to end the first book of the Torah! Those are the final words of the Parsha of Vayechi and the book of Bereshit (Genesis).  There is a general rule in Torah that we always end on a positive note. This is a rule in the Code of Jewish Law. For example, those who add additional stops in the Shabbat Torah reading are to always end at a positive statement.  Whenever there is a seemingly negative ending, the commentaries discuss the reasons for it. So it would seem strange that an entire book ends on such a negative note! 

 It’s more than just Yosef’s death.  Earlier in the Parsha we read of the lengths to which Yosef’s father Yaakov went to ensure that he would not be buried in Egypt but carried to Canaan and buried there.  Burial in Egypt was obviously not a good thing. Yet the last words of Genesis are: “[Yosef] was placed in a coffin in Egypt” and obviously buried there. Perhaps the book should have ended a few lines later, where the names of Yaakov’s children are enumerated, or a few verses earlier, where Yosef ensures the people that they will eventually be redeemed from Egypt?


Right after we read those words in the Synagogue, the entire community shouts out, as is customary at the culmination of every book of the Torah, “Chazak Chazak Venitchazek” – be strong, be strong and let us be strong.  The juxtaposition of this statement with the verse that we read right before it seems a little strange here. As always, there is a beautiful explanation in Chassidus, explained by the Rebbe.


Interestingly, the actual bondage and servitude of the Jewish people did not begin until after the last of Yaakov’s children died.  As long as they were alive, the Jews lived a comfortable life there, and only after Levi – the longest living of the brothers – died, the affliction and bondage started. Our Sages explain that this is because our forefathers, and Yaakov’s children are included in this category in this case, were so spiritually connected to Hashem that they could not be affected by exile.  It was only when they passed away that their children, not on the same level as their ancestors, were negatively impacted by Pharaoh and the suffering began. The purpose of the exile was not for its suffering, but to attain a greater spiritual height and prepare the way for the giving of the Torah. (How that works is a different discussion for another time.) The Zohar tells us that the Jewish people would never have been able to withstand the Egyptian bondage, remain distinct as a Jewish people, and actually receive the Torah, without the inspiration of their forefathers. It is for this reason that Hashem arranged for Yosef to be buried in Egypt.  


Yosef had, in his own life, been able to rise above the corrupt, depraved Egyptian culture and remain faithful to his Jewish heritage, withstanding the greasiest pressures and temptations.  It was his great spiritual power that inspired the Jews in the next few generations to remember who they were, where they came from and where they were ultimately headed. Although Yosef had died, the presence of his body in Egypt continued to inspire.  There is a saying that “holiness never leaves its place.” The Shechina (Hashem’s presence) that rested on Yosef during his lifetime continued to be there after his death. So Yosef’s death, and specifically being placed in a coffin in Egypt, is not a negative thing.  It is what helped the Jews make it through the Egyptian exile and remain the Jewish people. This is also the reason that the book ends at exactly that verse, because the second book speaks about the exile and redemption of the Jewish people, while the first tells us where the inspiration to survive it came from.


It is noteworthy that while many Jews prefer to be buried in Israel, many great sages who had the choice to be buried there, chose to be buried outside of Israel, and this is the reason for it.  They knew that the rest of us need the inspiration to never forget that our true home is in Israel and to never give up the work of improving the world and bringing the ultimate redemption through Moshiach.  When we can visit the grave of a true Tzaddik, we are uplifted by his or her holiness that continues after their death, and are inspired to emulate them to the best of our ability and bring some of that holiness into our world.


To conclude, I want to mention a very important point related to death and burial.  As I wrote above, holiness does not leave its place. While we may not be great Tzaddikim, our bodies contain a spark of the Divine, a part of Hashem Himself – the Neshama (Divine soul).  It is a requirement in the Torah, and a sacred Jewish tradition, for the body to be interred into the ground immediately after death. Cremation is considered to be a violent desecration of the holy sanctuary, and something our enemies did to us in order to violate us.  It is tragic that today there is a rising percentage of cremations happening in the Jewish community. I urge you to make sure that you have an ironclad will with instructions to be buried according to Jewish law. May we soon merit the coming of Moshiach, and the day when our bodies will be resurrected, as promised in the Torah.



Comments on: What a downer to end a book of the Torah like this...

eli rostamian wrote...

Thank you very much for such an inspirational commentary. The verse below from your commentary almost makes you look forward to facing difficulties:

"The purpose of the exile was not for its suffering, but to attain a greater spiritual height ......"