Two men had a dispute over a particular burial plot. Each one claimed the piece of land for himself. The men presented their arguments to the rabbi, and left the final decision up to him.
After a while, the rabbi said to them, “It is a very difficult case. Each one of you has very good arguments. Thus, I decree that whoever dies first will have the right to this burial place”.
From then on, they stopped fighting …
As we get older, it is fairly common to think about our final resting places. As a Rabbi, I am often advising people about making arrangements. Funeral directors call it “preplanning” – although that expression seems kind of redundant, doesn’t it?
Some folks are concerned that their specific wishes be carried out by their next of kin. Others want to save their children the stress of having to make the arrangements at what will surely be an emotional time. And some people want to lock in prices now before they go up.
This is not a new concern. Cemeteries have been central institutions for Jewish communities for thousands of years. The very first Jewish institution in San Jose, in fact, before there were any synagogues, was the Home of Peace Cemetery in Oak Hill Memorial Gardens.
But in addition to making the logistical arrangements, perhaps we also ought to be thinking about how to convey our values to those whom we leave behind.
The desire to arrange our funerals goes all the way back to the Bible. When Sarah dies, Abraham enters into lengthy negotiations to purchase the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron to serve as a family burial plot.
In this morning’s Torah portion, Vayechi, Jacob, our Patriarch, does his preplanning.
He has spent the final seventeen years of his life living in Egypt, under the invitation and protection of his son Joseph, who is the second most powerful man in the Empire, second only to Pharaoh. The entire family has left the land of Canaan to settle in the land of Goshen, located just to the East of the Nile Delta.
When he feels the end of his life approaching, Jacob calls Joseph to his bedside for a special request. He wants to be buried in the land of Canaan, in the Cave of Machpelah.
… please do not bury me in Egypt. When I lie down with my fathers, take me up from Egypt and bury me in their burial-place. (Gen. 47:29-30)
Jacob is insistent. He does not merely tell his son what he wants. Jacob makes Joseph swear it. Joseph initially resists committing himself by oath. “I will do as you have spoken,” he agrees.
But Jacob will not back down. “Swear to me,” he demands; and Joseph complies.
This is no small request. It is a journey of approximately 400 km, most of it desert. And this is in the Middle East, so it is hot. We can only imagine the smell.
Plus, it is politically dangerous. Joseph is the second in command to Pharaoh. What is Pharaoh going to think when Joseph asks for permission to return to his ancestral homeland? Can Pharaoh trust that Joseph will come back?
And furthermore, what will the Canaanites think when a large delegation arrives from Egypt? Might they see it as a threat and muster for war?
On a personal note, Jacob’s request is totally audacious. He acknowledges that when Rachel, Joseph’s mother died many years earlier, Jacob buried her on the side of the road. She died in a place called Paddan-Aram, which was only a half day’s journey from the family tomb in the Cave of Machpelah.
Jacob could not be bothered to take even a small detour to bury Joseph’s mother. Now he is requesting something that is almost impossible. Kind of hypocritical, no?
A look beneath the surface of this request reveals Jacob’s wisdom. In fact, his instructions contain a final lesson to his sons, the tribes of Israel, and future generations.
Why does Jacob insist that Joseph swear that he will fulfill his father’s dying request? The clue emerges when Joseph asks Pharaoh for permission to leave. Listen to what he says:
My father made me swear, saying ‘I am about to die. Be sure to bury me in the grave which I made ready for myself in the land of Canaan.’ Now therefore let me go up and bury my father; then I shall return. (Gen. 50:5)
Let’s pay attention to a few details. First, notice that Joseph leads with the oath. That gets Pharaoh’s attention. He knows that an oath is no small thing. Jacob insists so that Joseph will be able to fully convey the earnestness of the request.
Keep in mind also that the Egyptians were cultishly obsessed with death. Notables would spend considerable resources – during their lifetimes – to arrange their burial chambers. Just think of the pyramids.
When Joseph makes his request to Pharaoh, he does not mention his father’s wish to be buried with his fathers. Rather, he tells a little white lie, claiming that Jacob had arranged the burial location for himself. After all, that is something an Egyptian would do. Joseph is also careful to say that he intends to come back.
Pharaoh is so impressed by Joseph’s request that he agrees immediately.
The delegation is significant. Not only do Joseph and all of his brothers accompany the body on its final journey, all of the senior members of Pharaoh’s court, along with chariots and horsemen go as well. The children and flocks are left behind. Perhaps they are too young to make the journey. Or, perhaps they are hostages to ensure that Joseph will return to Egypt.
But we still have not determined why, specifically, Jacob want to be buried in the family plot?
At the time of his death, Jacob’s family is thriving in Egypt. They are the official shepherds for Pharaoh’s flocks. They have land. And their population has been growing. Moreover, Joseph has achieved the second highest rank in the Empire.
According to the midrash, Jacob is worried that if his body remains in Egypt, his descendants will come to see Egypt as their home, rather than just a temporary residence. Furthermore, he worries that the idolatrous Egyptians will begin to worship his remains, as the father of their beloved Joseph.
His desire to have his body returned to the Cave of Machpelah, therefore, is intended to remind his children that there are more important things than material success, and to underscore their connection to the Promised Land.
The final mystery has to do with Rachel’s burial location. Why didn’t Jacob bury Rachel in the Cave of Machpelah, and why does he bring it up with Joseph now?
According to the commentator Rashi, Jacob is acknowledging Joseph’s anger. It would not have been difficult to bury Rachel in the family tomb. Joseph feels that his mother has been dishonored. And now Jacob wants Joseph to bend over backwards to bury him. So on one level, Jacob is feeling guilty, and knows that his request sounds hypocritical.
But Rashi also cites a midrash. At the moment of Rachel’s death, God reveals to Jacob the future fate of his descendants. One day, perhaps a thousand years later, they will be exiled from the land of Israel by the Babylonians. Their tragic path out of Jerusalem will take them South, on the road to Beith Lechem. They will pass by Rachel’s tomb, and her spirit will join them, weeping in exile.
She will pray to God on behalf of her children, asking for compassion, and God will grant it. Thus, Jacob buries Rachel on the side of the road as a symbol of comfort and hope to his future descendants.
Looking at both of these midrashim, we find Jacob concerned about his children in the future. In death, he seeks to leave a lasting legacy.
He does not want them to become so seduced with wealth and success in Egypt that they forget the nation they are supposed to become. And, he knows that there will be times of devastation in the future, and he wants to leave them a legacy of hope and compassion.
Rather than an expression of selfishness and hypocrisy, we find that Jacob’s final instructions to have his body returned to the Land of Israel is a positive parting message to his children, and to us.