The last Torah portion of the book of Genesis is all about the passing of Jacob and Joseph. I suppose it makes sense that the story of our patriarchs concludes with the end of their time on earth, but I want to draw your attention to the two very different funeral arrangements described in this portion.
Jacob insisted on interment in Israel and troubled his children to transport him there. Joseph, by contrast, chose to be interred in Egypt. To be sure, he instructed his children to exhume his remains at the time of their exodus and transport him to Israel for reinternment, but in the meantime, he was interred in Egypt.
The obvious reason is that Joseph had the wherewithal to bury Jacob in Israel whereas Joseph’s descendants did not. As viceroy, it was not difficult for Joseph to secure permission from Pharaoh to bury his father in Israel in accordance with his last wishes. For the very same reason, it would have proven difficult, if not impossible, to bury Joseph in Israel. Pharaoh was not likely to allow Joseph, his viceroy and hero, to be buried outside of Egypt.
The question is why the book of Genesis ends on this note? As a general principle, we always try to conclude a book, conversation, lecture, visit, etc. on a positive note. The last verse in the book of Genesis reads, Joseph died and was placed in a casket in Egypt. What is the positive message in this verse? On the contrary, isn’t it sad to realize that with Joseph’s passing the Jews would have no one to advocate for them in the palace anymore and that they would now be dependent on Pharaoh’s whims?
A single word provides the answer. Rather than say that Joseph was buried in Egypt, the verse reads, Joseph was placed in a casket in Egypt. Why the odd turn of phrase, aren’t most people buried in caskets?
The message was that Joseph was not buried in Egypt. He was merely interred in a casket, waiting to be transported and reinterred in Israel. But he was not buried i.e. permanently stuck in Egypt. For the Jewish people, this was an uplifting message. G-d had foretold their bondage in Egypt. They knew it would be a long time before they could return home. But notwithstanding the length of time, Egypt would never become their home. Just like Joseph, they would reside in Egypt, but they would never be buried there.
One of the greatest fears that Jews would have had in those early days would have been assimilation into the Egyptian culture. How would they survive centuries of bondage in Egypt and retain their heritage, traditions, and distinct identity? What would keep them from becoming Egyptian? If not them, then their grandchildren. At some point, the connection with their ancient roots would become too tenuous to keep.
If they would be permitted to live in their own enclave as Joseph’s brothers had been allowed to do, they could hope for a much higher retention rate. But they knew they were destined to be enslaved by the Egyptians. This meant that they would need to live among them—in their towns and villages, among their men and women, in their houses of gathering and worship. How would they survive spiritually?
Joseph was their symbol of hope. Unlike his brothers, Joseph did not spend his days in the Jewish enclave built around his father’s home. By necessity, Joseph spent his life in Pharaoh’s court immersed in Egyptian culture and palace intrigue. He was surrounded by paganism and idol worship, yet, he remained a loyal Jew. His heart pulsated with a love of G-d. His soul was suffused by faith. His mind was permeated with Torah teachings. Though his days were filled with Egyptian business, his mind, heart, and soul, remained staunchly and fiercely Jewish.
Joseph would serve as a model and inspiration to the generations that followed. He paved the way and showed that it was possible. If he could achieve it at the pinnacle of success, power, and luxury, they would be able to achieve it in bondage, degradation, and suffering.
This was the message that Joseph sent. I transported my father and interred him in Israel so you would remember that Egypt is not your ancestral land. Your ancestors are interred at home, to which you will one day return. But until that day, I will remain here with you. My role was not only to pave the way for you, but to remain at your side you as you tread this path. I lie here in the ground, but I am not buried here permanently. My presence here is transient as is yours.
Like Mother Like Son
This was an incredible sacrifice on Joseph’s part. He had spent the lion share of his life in Egypt, and now that he had passed on, he could at last free himself from the shackles that bound him to this depraved land. Yet, Joseph was raised by his mother Rachel, who inculcated in him this creed of devotion. He nursed this love for others at his mother’s breast. She paved the way that he would later tread.
Rachel’s entire life was one of devotion. As a young girl, she was destined to marry Jacob. Yet, when her sister Leah was placed under her wedding canopy, she refused to divulge this secret to Jacob so she would not shame her sister. She spent the rest of her life sharing her husband with Leah and never regretted it for a moment. She did the right thing for others at a steep price to herself.
Upon her passing, she could finally claim her rightful place beside her husband. Two burial plots were assigned to Jacob in the Tomb of the Patriarchs, one for him and one for his wife. As his first love, Rachel was entitled to that spot. Yet, she was buried in Bethlehem beside the road and her sister, Leah, took her place in the Tomb of Patriarchs.
Before his passing, Jacob explained to Joseph that his mother Rachel was happy to give up her spot for the sake of her children. One day, the Babylonians would sack Jerusalem and exile the Jewish people. They would travel past Bethlehem and would find solace in praying at Rachel’s grave. Rachel was happy, said Jacob, to make herself available to her children. Indeed, how could Rachel have rested comfortably near her husband, knowing that her children would need her one day?
Even as Jacob asked Joseph to carry him to Israel, he told Joseph about his mother’s choice and thus foreshadowed the choice that Joseph would make. Like mother like son. As Rachel surrendered her place for her children, so would Joseph. He would carry his father to Israel but remain with his people in Egypt. It was a one-two punch. Jacob returned to Israel to remind his children that Egypt could never be home. Joseph remained in Egypt to help the Jews persevere in Egypt. Indeed, the plan worked. Two-hundred-and-ten years later, the Jews would be liberated from Egypt, their identity intact. And they carried Joseph’s remains with them so he could finally be laid to rest in the Holy Land.
We too must always remember that until the coming of Mashiach, we are not at home. No matter how comfortable our lives might be in the diaspora, our home, our only true home, is in the Holy Land. You can be a Jew anywhere in the world. In fact, we became a people in Sinai, not in Israel, to remind us that it is possible to be a Jew anywhere. But our home can only be in Israel. No other place can ever be home.