Sunday, January 24, 2021

Table for Five: Vayechi

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One verse, five voices. Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

When the time drew near for Israel to die, he called his son Joseph and said to him, “If I have now found favor in your eyes, place your hand beneath my thigh, and deal with me with lovingkindness and truth; please do not bury me in Egypt.” -Gen 47:29

Rabbi Pinchas Winston

For centuries, Jews who have died in the Diaspora have asked to be buried in Israel. One reason is in this week’s reading, when Ya’akov requests it of his son, Yosef. But what’s the big deal if a person gets buried elsewhere, just as long as the deceased gets buried according to Jewish law?

Rashi, the Torah commentator, explained Ya’akov’s concern: he was worried about his bones having to roll through the earth to get to Eretz Yisroel at a future time, as part of an atonement process for having been buried outside the land. But is it a sin to be buried outside of Eretz Yisroel? If it were, wouldn’t more people insist on burial there?

Rather, it says in a remarkable work called “Tuv HaAretz—Good of the Land,” that it is not so much a sin to be buried outside the land as it is a missed opportunity for atonement. Apparently, the sins of a person are automatically forgiven if they are buried in Eretz Yisroel. This is not the case if they are buried in the Diaspora. Of course, a person cannot sin and say, “Not to worry. I’ll sin now and just make sure I will be buried in the Holy Land, and all my sins will be forgiven!” Not so, the kabbalists explain. God doesn’t let a person use His gift of atonement as an excuse to sin. It only works for the person who tried to avoid sin but happened to slip up.

Rabbi Aryeh Markman
Executive Director, Aish LA

One must wonder why people live their entire lives in the diaspora only to be buried in Israel.

We have one last eternal statement as we depart from this world and that is our place of burial.

The message Jacob was sending to the 12 tribes, who were beginning to assimilate in Egypt, is that the land of Israel is your homeland and that is where you belong forever.

People may want to live eternally through their foundations. They leave millions of dollars behind, giving detailed instructions to their descendants and trustees as to how to continue their Jewish legacies. In my 30 years of organizational life I have witnessed many of these trustees contributing these fortunes to organizations that would have the deceased roll over in their graves. Be careful. Jacob was.

You see Jacob’s plan was not a mere suggestion. He specifically bound Joseph by oath because Jacob knew Joseph would have to ask Pharaoh for permission to personally leave Egypt to oversee Jacob’s burial.

Jacob’s last Will and Testament, to be buried in the Land of Israel, had such a deep and lasting impact that his 12 sons requested the same. Their remains were carried for 40 years in the desert before being interned in Israel. How do you think Joseph’s grave wound up in Nablus? After all, he was buried in the Nile!

What message are we going to send to our children and grandchildren that will all but guarantee the Jewish continuity of our families?

Dini Coopersmith
Trip Director and Speaker, www.reconnectiontrips.com

In this verse describing that it was almost Yisrael’s time to die, the verse actually says: “the days of Yisrael were coming near to die”. Not that it was time for him to die, as the Sages tell us: “Yaakov our forefather did not die”. Even though his physical days of doing were over, the mission of his life was not finished, and certainly his values and legacy live on eternally.

The Kli Yakar states that when someone has a righteous son who continues in his ways, it is as if his soul never dies and the verse says that he “lies with his fathers,” rather than that he “died.” Yaakov, who left 12 righteous sons and a daughter, all of whom took part in becoming the nation of Israel, was still very much alive in spirit. Only his days were nearing their end.

I just heard a talk given by Dr. Edith Eger, a 93 yr. old Holocaust survivor, who spends her days as a psychotherapist, helping others to overcome trauma. She said curiosity saved her in Auschwitz. “I always wanted to find out what would happen the next day. So I kept climbing. I am still climbing.” She says she asks herself every day: What can I contribute today to the world? We too can ask ourselves: What is my eternal legacy? How am I using my strengths and abilities to contribute to my family, my community, my nation? What will be everlasting, even after my days are over?

Alissa Thomas-Newborn
Rabbanit, B’nai David-Judea Congregation

Our rabbis teach that the reason ‘chesed ve’emet’ refers to burial is because true lovingkindness is doing for another what he cannot do for himself with no expectation of anything in return. Chizukuni points out that Yosef does more than even that! Yosef is obligated to honor his father with a proper burial. But to heed Yaakov’s plea as to where he is buried is beyond the call of duty.

In his position, Yosef would have been able to bury his father with the dignity and glory reserved for Egyptian kings. So he could have viewed Yaakov’s request as a rejection of his own life and success– making his father’s wishes about himself. Instead, Yosef honors Yaakov without any pushback. Why? Because Yosef sees our verse for what it is: the plea of a stranger in a strange land yearning for return, and a critical reunion in the story of his family and the Jewish people.

The truth is we each have daily opportunities, big and small, to walk in Yosef’s footsteps. To step outside of ourselves in order to see a need and a story bigger than us. The ‘chesed ve’emet’ part is going above and beyond ourselves, putting another’s plea before our own. As we begin 2021, let’s ask: How can I be like Yosef this year? And then, let’s thank the ‘Yosefs’ all around us. The people who give us dignity when we are in need. The people who make our peace of mind their own.

Rabbi Scott N. Bolton
Congregation Or Zarua, New York, NY

Burying our loved ones leads to closure on the one hand and yet opens our minds and hearts in other ways. Jacob returned Joseph to Israel to effect a tikkun, deep healing. In asking his son for the truest kindness of laying his body to rest, Ya’akov turned the terrain of terror into a vessel of family peace and spiritual connectivity. The holy soil and rocky hills, the burial cave we can visit to this day, would receive his father. The bones of grandparents and great-grandparents would remind him and us, “You belong here! You are part of this Godly story!”

Questions abound at funerals and especially at burials: What shall we do with the rest of our time on this earth? How will we connect to the legacy of those who came before us? Shall I demand of myself to “go up” to the land of Israel now, physically or on a soul level?”

For Joseph, no longer would Israel be the fateful pit. Jacob helped him see clearly that the land belongs to his family, and it is central to the Jewish People’s destiny. Ultimately Joseph would say to his brothers, “God will indeed remember you, and you will bring my bones up from here.” (50:25) Jacob and Joseph taught us that diaspora existence is not complete without physical and spiritual connections to the Land of Israel and to those whose bodies and bones are part of the soil.

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