Thursday, January 4, 2007

Of Presidential Pardons and Hometown Burials

It might be tasteless, but who can resist comparing the historic funerals that took place this week? Two world leaders were laid to rest, Gerald Ford and Saddam Hussein. Allow me to indulge in a brief contrast – the relevance to our parsha will become apparent soon enough.

Both Ford and Hussein had humble beginnings and rose to power unelected, but the similarities end there. One was a religious Christian; the other, a secular Arab. One was famous for his pardon; the other, for his ruthless retribution. One died peacefully in old age surrounded by loving family; the other was executed by jeering, celebrating enemies. One merited the pageantry of a presidential funeral; the other, a quiet predawn service. Men may be created equal, but they sure don’t die that way!

Yet despite all the differences, the two funerals did have one thing in common. Both men were buried in their beloved hometowns: Ford in Grand Rapids, Michigan and Hussein in Ouija, Iraq. Even those who suffered under Hussein’s tyranny for decades could not deprive him of this basic human right. Strangely, of the two Jewish forebears who pass away in this week’s parsha, only one of them asks to be taken home.
When Israel (Jacob) realized that he would soon die, he called for his son Yosef… “Do for me a kindness and a truth, do not bury me in Egypt. I will lie
with my fathers. Carry me out of Egypt and bury me in their burial plot.” (Bereishit 47:29-30)
When it came time for Yosef’s own passing, however, his last will was quite different.
Yosef said to his brothers, “I am dying. G-d will remember you and take you out of this land, to the land that He swore to Avraham, to Yitzchak and to Yaakov.
Yosef then bound the children of Israel by an oath: “[When] G-d remembers you, bring up my remains from here.” (Bereishit 50:24-25)
Ignoring the precedent set by his father, Yosef does not ask to be buried in Israel. His only request is that the Jews take his remains with them when they leave Egypt. (Although the Exodus does not take place for another century and a half, the promise was faithfully kept; cf. Exodus 13:19).

If Yosef would like to be buried in Israel, as is his inalienable right, why not go right away like his father? Wouldn’t that be a lot simpler? What is the point of waiting until the Exodus?

Another question: Ordinarily, a person who has a special request for his funeral arrangements discusses it with his children, not his siblings! Why does Yosef elicit this oath from his brothers and not from his capable sons?

This question is found in the Moshav Zekei’nim, a compilation of Torah commentary from 130 sages of the Tosafist school (circa 12-13th cent.). The book presents an excellent answer and it comes straight from the Talmud:
“Yosef’s bones, which the children of Israel had brought up from Egypt, they buried in Shechem” (Joshua 24:32)…
Why Shechem? R. Chama the son of R. Chanina taught, “From Shechem they kidnapped him (cf. Bereishit 37:12-14) and so to Shechem his lost [body] must be returned.” (Sotah 13b)
It other words, returning Yosef to Shechem is an act of closure. Taking him out of Egypt, bringing him back to the scene of the crime and interring him there (in a pit!), would help fix the sin of the brothers. This is why Yosef gave the job to them and not to his sons.

But why wait for the Exodus? Why not do it now? The answer is that there can be no closure before the Egyptian exile is complete.

Why are the Jews in Egypt? The trajectory of the story is clear: The Jews are in Egypt because the brothers sold Yosef to slave traders. The Talmud says as much when it points out this lesson:
A person should never demonstrate favoritism toward one of his children, for a wool [garment] worth two Selah that Yaakov gave to Yosef and not to his other children inspired the jealousy of Yosef’s brothers. One thing led to the next and our fathers descended into Egypt. (Shabbat 10b)
It is no coincidence that the crime leads to the punishment. Divine justice is always poetic. The brothers sold Yosef as a slave and the nation is enslaved as a result. Poetic indeed.

The brothers knew that justice demanded their enslavement. After the death of their father Yaakov, they surrender to Yosef.
The brothers then came and fell before him. “Here, we are your slaves!” (Bereishit 50:18)
Yosef does not take them up on the offer. “Am I G-d?!” is his response. But that doesn’t mean that the brothers were wrong. As we all know, slavery is in the offing.
Divine justice is not only poetic, it’s productive too. If there is discord among the brothers, slavery is just the thing they need. There was no sibling rivalry or tribal chauvinism in Egypt. Slavery unites.

In the last scene of Genesis, Yosef prophesizes the eventual redemption of the nation from Egyptian bondage. On that day, said Yosef, our family will be whole again. Only then can you bring me home.


  1. Excellent point of contrasting Yakkov's and Yosef's last request!

    If slavery of the Jewish people was indeed retribution for selling Yosef, why were the tribes of Menashe and Efraim also included? It can't be because they were considered part of the whole nation of Israel, because we know that the tribe of Levi was not subject to slavery.

  2. Benji-
    I think the straightforward understanding of the story is that the slavery in Egypt was the result of the sale of Yosef. As for Menashe and Efraim, you are right that they must share the same fate - the whole idea here is to unify the nation. Furthermore, Yosef isn't entirely innocent himself. When he was young he was a tattletale (cf. Bereishit 37:2) and he instigated their hatred when he told them his dreams. Concerning the Midrash that the tribe of Levi was exempted from the Egyptian slavery, I could argue that according to p'shuto shel mikra the tribe of Levi was also enslaved. But even without that, Levi gets different treatment because of its status as the priestly class.

  3. Actually, I think the larger story here, if not all of Sefer Beraishis, is how the destiny of the Jewish people came about through their ancestor's misdeeds and shortcomings. Avraham was told long ago that his children would be enslaved in Egypt. The fact that it came about jealousy and strife is indeed remarkable: You would think that misdeeds would have the opposite effect on the divine plan. And there are similar stories throughout (like with Yehuda and Tamar, where the lineage of King David came about through what Yehuda thought was an illict relationship.) Yosef seems to get this, too. At the end of the Parsha, when the brothers expect Yosef to enact revenge, he tells them there is no need for them to be punished, because his arrival in Egypt was preordained.

  4. Benji-
    You are making a facinating point. Certain elements of our national destiny are inescapable. However, not everything that happened had to happen.
    Although Avraham did receive a prophecy that his descendants would be enslaved, G-d never said anything about Egypt. As we discussed in the post on Yitchak, the 400 year exile actually began in Israel. Rabbi Twersky of Yeshiva University writes that if not for the sale of Yosef, the entire prophecy would have played itself out in the Holy Land.

  5. Great discussion! Yosef’s continued presence in Mitzrayim (even if in the grave) must have served as a continued source of hope for the Israelites—twice at the end of book of Bereishis, Yosef assures the people: “G-d will surely remember you…” This becomes the “password” that Moses uses to convince the people that redemption is near: “And the people believed, and they heard that the L-rd had remembered the children of Israel.” (Shemot 4:31). The very nearness of Joseph, even in death, remained a touchstone of faith. Yosef remembered his dreams, the people remembered Yosef, and G-d remembered the people.