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To Be Buried in One’s Homeland: Yoseph, Herzl, and Hadar

The Jewish desire to be buried in Israel is indeed a puzzle, one that goes back centuries.
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December 16, 2021
The site in Jerusalem where the remains of Theodor Herzl (1860 – 1904) lie after they were brought for final burial from Vienna in August 1949. (Photo by George Pickow/Getty Images)

In his essay “Majesty and Humility,” Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik recounts how “Occasionally, when I am at the airport, I happen to observe the loading of a double coffin containing the body of a Jew who has lived, worked, raised children, prospered or failed, in the United States. It is being shipped for burial in the land of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” Rav Soloveitchik finds this to be fascinating, because many of those being transported had marginal Jewish identities. He ponders why a “modern, secular Jew wants to rest in eternal peace in proximity to the site where the patriarchs found their rest.”

The Jewish desire to be buried in Israel is indeed a puzzle, one that goes back centuries. The Talmud Yerushalmi records a fascinating exchange between two 2nd-century rabbis, Rabbi Eleazer and Rabbi Barqiria, while they were observing caskets of diaspora Jews being carried into Israel for burial. Rabbi Barqiria criticized the practice, noting that these Jews had treated Israel with contempt in their lifetimes by failing to move there, and now they were making it worse by sending their impure, dead bodies into Israel for burial. Rabbi Eleazar defended the practice and asserted that burial in Israel was so important, it had sufficient merit to atone for one’s sins. (The Midrash on our Torah reading mentions a similar debate.) Rabbi Barqiria’s criticism notwithstanding, this puzzling practice clearly was popular already in the 2nd century despite the challenging logistics of long-distance burial in the ancient world.

But what motivates a Jew in the corners of exile to send his body for burial in Israel? Rav Soloveitchik explains that all humans have an instinctive desire to return to their roots at the very end of life; and for a Jew, his roots are in Israel. Rav Soloveitchik explains that “the meaning of death in the Biblical tradition” is to “return to the origin, the source.” He calls this desire “origin-consciousness.” This longing is universal; as life comes to an end, even the adventurer yearns for home. Rav Soloveitchik quotes Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem “Requiem,” as follows:

“This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.”

Even explorers want to return home to their final resting place.

This longing is universal; as life comes to an end, even the adventurer yearns for home.

Parshat Vayechi offers two vignettes relating to burial in Israel. Both Yaakov and Yoseph have had adventures that took them far away from home and separated them from their families. Yet both want to return home for burial; after a lifetime of wandering, they want to return to their roots. So Yaakov asks Yoseph to make sure he will be buried in the family grave in the Mearat Hamachpelah. At the end of the Torah reading, Yoseph does the same; he makes his family promise to take his bones with them when they leave Egypt.

These two requests reflect very different concerns. Yaakov wants to be buried in his kever avot, his family plot; Yoseph wants to be buried in Eretz Yisrael, in the Land of Israel. Both of these concerns are religious values, and this is reflected in halakhah as well. Generally, disinterment of a body is forbidden; one should not disturb a grave for any reason. However, there are two exceptions to the rule: if the body will be reburied in a family plot, or if it will be sent to Israel for reburial.

Yaakov reminds us of the importance of the family plot. Sefer Chasidim, the 12th-century German work, takes the mystical view that the cemetery is a portal between the worlds of the living and the dead; and the dead very much desire for their graves to be visited by family members. But even rationalists can recognize that the family plot is sacred ground, a spot that symbolically expresses connections of love that never die. In the moments when I consider where I would want to be buried, it is family considerations that loom large. Should I be buried with my parents and grandparents, or in a cemetery closer to where my children will live? It is instinctive to want to be laid to rest near family.

In the moments when I consider where I would want to be buried, it is family considerations that loom large. Should I be buried with my parents and grandparents, or in a cemetery closer to where my children will live?

Rav Soloveitchik’s essay offers a profound insight into the powerful allure of a family plot; and this is what motivates Yaakov. However, I don’t think his explanation fully explains the desire for burial in Israel; this age-old custom is far more than a return to origins, as we can see from the burial of Yoseph.

Yoseph’s burial is not about his family; he is buried alone, apart from his parents and siblings. Instead, his reburial tells the story of national redemption. Yoseph’s descent to Egypt begins a difficult chapter of exile; and when the Jews are redeemed, Yoseph’s bones return with them. Because of the national significance of Yoseph’s reburial, Moshe personally carries Yoseph’s bones. Yoseph is buried in Shechem, the very place where he is sold into slavery, and the saga of the Egyptian exile begins. Yoseph’s reburial is about redemption and the future, not about the past.

On August 17, 1949, the story of Yoseph’s bones returned to the headlines. Theodore Herzl, the father of modern Zionism, was brought to burial in Israel. Herzl had written in his will, “I wish to be buried in a metal coffin, in the cemetery plot next to my father, and I will lie there until the people of Israel transfer my body to the Land of Israel.” After his death in 1904, little was done. There were discussions in the Zionist movement about moving Herzl’s bones in 1925, and again in 1935; by then, the antisemitism that was raging in Austria rendered this project impossible.

After the establishment of the State of Israel, its leaders immediately took on the project of bringing Herzl to Israel; and this was seen as a modern version of the burial of Yoseph’s bones. Doron Bar, of The Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, notes that within the dry language of the Knesset legislation establishing a national burial ground for Herzl, the Biblical phrase “chelkat sadeh,” “a parcel of land” is used—a reference to the words used at the end of the book of Joshua about the reburial of Yoseph. When David Ben Gurion spoke in the Knesset, he said: “Only two people in Jewish history have had the privilege of having their remains brought to Israel by their liberated nation. Yoseph from Egypt and Herzl from Vienna.” Herzl’s reburial was a modern day return of Yoseph’s bones.

The entire process played out in grand drama. In Vienna, the community gathered to offer one last farewell in a synagogue packed with Holocaust survivors, tears streaming down their faces. A special El Al plane, which bore the name “Herzl” on its nose, arrived to take the body to Israel. In a short speech before the plane took off, David Remez, the minister of transportation, said, “Past and future combine to raise up the leader’s bones. His spirit will continue to be with us and guide the Jewish people from the eternal hills of Jerusalem.”

The plane flew to Israel and entered the skies over Haifa, where it was met by four planes from the Israeli Air Force, which then accompanied Herzl’s plane. After landing, the body was taken to the Knesset in Tel Aviv, where a special session was held to honor Herzl. Following that, a procession took Herzl’s body to Jerusalem, on the same path that Herzl himself took in his 1898 visit. In Jerusalem. Herzl was buried in the newly created cemetery of Har Herzl, which would become the final resting place of Israel’s great heroes, soldiers, and leaders.

Herzl’s burial represented the opening of a new chapter in Jewish history. As Ben Gurion eloquently stated in his speech, “Herzl’s coffin is entering the mountains of Jerusalem not in a procession of mourning, but rather in a journey of triumph.” Upon entering Jerusalem, the coffin passed under an arch built for the occasion bearing the biblical verse, “I will lift you from your graves My people and bring you to the land of Israel” (Ezek. 37:12). Herzl’s return to Israel meant that the Jewish people had finally come home.

This is why I take a different view than Rav Soloveitchik of burial in Israel. While the desire to return to one’s origins is universal, the desire to be buried in Israel is much more than that. For centuries, Jews sent their bodies to Israel in order to make a statement that they believed in redemption, believed in the Jewish future, and believed that Israel would once again be the home and homeland of their descendants. Like Yoseph and Herzl, these simple Jews wanted to be a part of a future Jewish state. They were longing to be buried in Israel and their longing for redemption were one and the same.

As I write these words, my thoughts turn to my dear friends Leah and Simcha Goldin. They have been waging a lonely campaign to bring home the remains of their son Hadar Goldin along with Oron Shaul. Both were soldiers killed in 2014 during Operation Protective Edge. Since then, their bodies have been held hostage by Hamas. The Goldins continue to push forward, in the United Nation, in the U.S. Capitol, and in the Knesset. All too often, their concerns are dismissed as unimportant in the realm of diplomacy. But returning a body to the family grave is not an insignificant matter for any human being; and returning Jewish heroes to their homeland should be a priority for every Jew. Hadar and Oron must be given a dignified burial; it is time for them to come home.


Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz is the Senior Rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York.

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