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Vayechi

Thursday, 20 December, 2018 - 4:53 pm

In the concluding Parsha of the book of Beresheet, Yaakov and his family are now living in Egypt, and Yaakov is approaching his last days.  Yaakov asks his son Yosef, ruler of Egypt, to visit him, and tells him in no uncertain terms that he cannot be buried in Egypt.  He asks Yosef to bury him in Israel, and in order to strengthen Yosef’s promise, he tells him to swear to it, which Yosef does.  This oath came to good use later when Yaakov died.  As he had predicted, Pharaoh did not want to allow Yosef to leave Egypt for fear that he may not return.  Another reason is that Pharaoh had intended to build an impressive grave for Yaakov.  The Talmud tells us that the blessing that the Torah says Yaakov gave Pharaoh when he first came to Egypt, was that the Nile waters would rise toward Pharaoh when he approached.  This happened two years into the famine that Pharaoh had dreamed of and Yosef had interpreted, that was supposed to last for seven years.  After this blessing the famine ended, shortening it by five years.  The Egyptians considered Yaakov a holy man, and wanted to have his grave enshrined in Egypt.  So when Yosef asked Pharaoh to let him take his father’s body to Canaan, Pharaoh did not want to let him go, until Yosef told him that he had sworn to his father to do this.  Pharaoh urged Yosef to annul the oath, but Yosef actually had leverage. 

 When Yosef had first been taken out of prison and brought before Pharaoh to interpret his dreams, he spoke to Pharaoh in Hebrew, which Pharaoh did not understand.  Pharaoh, who prided himself on knowing more languages than anyone in the country, was humiliated, and made Yosef swear that he would never tell anyone that he knew more languages than him.  Now when Pharaoh was urging Yosef to annul his vow to his father, Yosef threatened to also annul his vow to Pharaoh, and with that Pharaoh acceded to his request and Yaakov was buried in the Cave of Machpela.  We see here a great effort on Yaakov’s part, putting his son, the ruler of Egypt, in a great predicament to challenge Pharaoh, the king of the known world at the time.  Yosef himself, along with all his brothers, went to great sacrifice to carry out his father’s wishes. 

This is a powerful lesson to us of how important it is to be buried as a Jew in a proper Jewish cemetery.  We find this lesson previously, when Sarah died and Avraham insisted on paying full price to purchase an appropriate place for her to be buried in Chevron.  The Talmud (Berachot 8:1) discusses the verse in Psalms (32:6) “For this let every pious person pray to you at a time that you may be found,” and gives a few explanations on what exactly is “the time that you may be found.”  One interpretation is that it is referring burial.  Jewish burial is one of the pillars of Jewish society.   The body itself is holy.  The Zohar describes the various parts of the body as vehicles for the Divine attributes.  The Mitzvah to build a Sanctuary in the desert, and later a Holy Temple in Jerusalem, is written in the Torah as: “They shall make Sanctuary for Me, and I will dwell within them,” (Shemot 25:8) and our sages explain that in addition to the physical building, every one of us is a holy sanctuary for Hashem. 

 There is a Mitzvah to say a blessing before we eat any food.  We don’t say a “bracha” before we enter our house or business.  Even the first time we move into a new house there is no special bracha, but before we put any food or drink into our bodies, we are required to say a blessing.  One explanation given by the Rebbe is that while our physical possessions are ours to do with as we wish, the body is not our own property.  It was given to us for safekeeping by Hashem, and we are required to honor it as a treasure owned by Hashem.  The blessing we say before we eat or drink is a way of asking permission from Hashem before we put anything into our bodies.  We return the treasure by burying it into the ground.  And for a Jew, this sacred treasure must be returned to a sacred space, a properly consecrated Jewish cemetery. 

Today when more and more people are opting out of burial and tragically being cremated, something that is anathema to Jewish life and certainly not in keeping with the sanctity of Hashem’s body, it is especially important to make your wishes known.  One way to do that is through a Halachic Living Will, here. 

Techiyat Hameitim, the resurrection of the dead after Moshiach comes, is one of the foundations of Jewish faith.  The physical body will come back to life in a new world, where physical and spiritual will be united.  Proper Jewish burial also prepares for that time, as is explained in many Jewish writings, beyond the scope of this short note.  May we merit to see this very soon.

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