D’var Torah: Parashat Vayechi

27 Dec

Torah (Photo credit: Lawrie Cate)

Our parasha concludes the book of Bereshit, but before the narrative shifts to the enslavement of Bnei Yisrael and our introduction to Moshe, we must first deal with the deaths of two central characters of Bereshit and the implications thereof. In our most recent parshiyot dramatic scenes have unfolded before our eyes. Brothers who were once bitter rivals have been reunited, and a father, who thought for decades that his son was deceased, comes face to face with his offspring.

Yosef, the youngest and most favored of all his brothers, who had been thrown into a pit and sold into slavery has risen to heights unimagined. He has correctly interpreted the dreams of Pharoah’s prisoners, foretold years of plenty and years of famine when asked to decode the messages of Pharoah himself. Wealth and power belong to Joseph in ways that must have been extremely uncommon for an outsider to attain in almost any ancient near-East culture. Despite the fame and glory that Yosef achieved, he was not immune to an aspect of life that almost every human on the planet must encounter, the death of a close relative, in this case his father, Yaakov.

Caring for the dead, preparations for the funeral, and the burial are all regarded as extremely generous acts of loving kindness. Although we do not generally rank one act above the other, these are particularly meritorious simply because the deceased is unable to repay his or her caretakers for the respect and honor. Consequently the motives for tending to the deceased are ostensibly pure.

Yaakov, now one-hundred forty-seven years old, senses that his days are coming to a conclusion, after having dwelt seventeen years in Egypt. Yaakov instructs Yosef to bury him in the ancestral burial site of Avraham, Sarah, Yitzhak, and Rivkah.  Almost as if Yaakov senses the resentment of Yosef for not having buried his mother,Rachel, in that site (Rashi), Yaakov requests Yosef take a vow, which Yosef does readily. Yaakov eventually admits to Yosef that he did not bury Rachel with the other patriarchs and matriarchs, rather along the road leading to Beit Lehem, a grave which can be visited today, and is visible on the access road to Gush Etzion. After bestowing on each son a blessing or reprimand (Chapter 49), Yaakov instructs all of his sons to carry him to the now famous family crypt. Chapter 50 outlines the mourning rituals and embalming of Yaakov, after which Pharoah grants the family permission to bury their patriarch.

I am still left with a nagging question. How could Yaakov request that Yosef perform the ultimate act of kindness, which would involve significant amounts of travel, but Yaakov himself was not willing to do the same for Rachel? Furthermore, how could Yosef acquiesce so readily?  Yosef may have in fact been irritated with his father’s decision to bury Rachel outside Beit Lehem (see Rashi above), which could be the reason for the oath. But this still leaves the second question unanswered.

As I noted, involvement with the dead is the ultimate act of kindness since there is no reward from the deceased. Yosef has demonstrated to his brothers, and by extension his descendants, contemporary society included, the lengths to which we must go to do hesed. As a result, Yosef has positioned himself to be the recipient of an even greater hesed (act of kindness), to have his remains bound up and transported to Canaan, a request that Yosef makes, and is granted. In the final verse of Bereshit (50:26), Yosef’s body is placed into a casket which will be taken out when the Israelites make their dramatic exit from Egypt.

Yosef should be to us a pioneer of hesed, doing acts for which there seems to be no reward. If we can model our behavior after Yosef in this final parasha of Bereshit, then perhaps we too can merit being recipients of unbridled hesed, both in this world and the next.

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