“Meghan and Harry waxworks removed from Royal family display at Madame Tussauds Museum.” This headline coming merely one day after Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, also known as the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, have announced their plans to step down from their royal duties. Thankfully, the year is 2020 and nothing terrible has happened. Go back just a few hundred years back, and this could be cause for war. Yet in this week’s Parasha, Joseph takes a similar step, facing even fewer consequences than Meghan and Harry.
“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, now place your hand beneath my thigh, and you shall deal with me with lovingkindness and truth; do not bury me now in Egypt. I will lie with my forefathers, and you shall carry me out of Egypt, and you shall bury me in their grave.” And he said, “I will do as you say.” And he said, “Swear to me. “So he swore to him, and Israel prostrated himself on the head of the bed.” (Genesis 47)
Many commentaries wonder why is it that Jacob needed to make his son Joseph take an oath to keep his word? Did he not trust him? Why could Jacob not simply assume Joseph would follow his word?
Rabbi David Fohrman of Aleph Beta explains: for Joseph, Egypt’s second in command, to bury his own father in Canaan is a national embarrassment to Egypt. It would be like Queen Elizabeth to ask to be buried in Argentina, or like Meghan Markle deciding to move to North America. The national embarrassment that comes with a family of the national establishment asking to be buried outside of the country, is never appreciated. A recent example of this? Petitions are circulating the United Kingdom, asking to revoke the title “the Duke and Duchess of Sussex,” from Prince Harry and Meghan gathering thousands of signatures. Many other British citizens asking to pull back funds from the [almost formerly] royal couple, is just another example for that. And so Jacob asks Joseph to swear he will bury him in the land of Israel. By doing so Jacob accomplishes a personal, and generational goal. Personal, Jacob does wish to be buried with his forefathers in the cave of Machpela in Hebron together with his forefathers Abraham and Isaac. The larger goal Jacob accomplishes, is strengthening his family’s unbreakable bond to the land of Israel. Even with all they have in Egypt, his children will always know there is a land they should be returning to. They can remain in Egypt for now, but should never forget their place is back in Israel.
Did Joseph agree with Jacob’s assessment? The answer is evident later in the Parsha.
Joseph said to his brothers, “I am going to die; God will surely remember you and take you up out of this land to the land that He swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.” And Joseph adjured the children of Israel, saying, “God will surely remember you, and you shall take up my bones out of here.” And Joseph died at the age of one hundred ten years, and they embalmed him and he was placed into the coffin in Egypt
Joseph knew; asking to be escorted from Egypt to Canaan was too much to ask for. His brothers did not have the same power he had when he was alive. His remains would have to wait until the exodus from Egypt. Indeed, many years later, this is what happens:
“Moses took Joseph’s bones with him, for he [Joseph] had adjured the sons of Israel, saying, God will surely remember you, and you shall bring up my bones from here with you” (Exodus 13)
Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, the greatest of all commentators, in his commentary to Exodus,(Ibid) leaves no room for doubt:
“Joseph] had made them [his brothers] swear that they would make their children swear (Mechilta). Now why did he not make his sons swear to carry him to the land of Canaan immediately [when he died], as Jacob had made [him] swear? Joseph said, “I was a ruler in Egypt, and I had the ability to do [this]. As for my sons-the Egyptians will not let them do [it].” Therefore, he made them swear that when they would be redeemed and would leave there [Egypt], they would carry him [out”
Even from his own position of power, Joseph knew that moving his remains to Canaan would be too much of an ask from the Egyptian monarchy; it would have to wait until the ultimate redemption.
The complexity of this situation is evident more than ever, in Joseph’s postmortem communication with Pharaoh:
“And Jacob concluded commanding his sons, and he drew his legs [up] into the bed, and expired and was brought in to his people. Joseph fell on his father’s face, and he wept over him and kissed him. And forty days were completed for him for so are the days of embalming completed and the Egyptians wept over him for seventy days. When the days of his weeping had passed, Joseph spoke to Pharaoh’s household, saying, “If now I have found favor in your eyes, speak now in Pharaoh’s ears, saying: ‘My father adjured me, saying, “Behold, I am going to die. In my grave, which I dug for myself in the land of Canaan, there you shall bury me.” So now, please let me go up and bury my father and return.’ “
The amount of shuttle diplomacy evident here cannot be overstated. Joseph first waits to embalm his father. He then allows for seventy days of national mourning, allowing the people of Egypt to lament Jacob’s loss. It is only after all this that Joseph speaks to members of the royal house asking them to approach Pharaoh about the matter. Joseph will not do it himself.
Imagine that, Joseph, the second in command to Pharaoh, cannot approach Pharaoh himself; Joseph needed the mitigating forces of diplomacy to address this sensitive matter. Even when bringing the matter to Pharaoh, Joseph invokes the oath he imposed on him by his father.
Membership has its privileges, goes the saying; it also has its responsibilities. Whether it is Meghan Markle and Prince Harry, or Jacob and Egyptian royalty, being esteemed by others carries great weight with it. Whether one likes it or not, being entrusted with people’s pride leaves one with that honor to carry. When royal trust collides with personal affinities, one must walk a fine line to treat that trust with dignity and respect. That is the lesson of this week’s Parsha.
When Joseph comes to visit Jacob, the Torah tells us:
“And [someone] told Jacob and said, “Behold, your son Joseph is coming to you.” And Israel summoned his strength and sat up on the bed.” (Genesis 47)
Why did Jacob make all that effort and sit up for his own son? After all, it is his son who owed him a response, not the other way around.
Rashi sites the Midrash stating:
“He[Jacob] said, “Although he is my son, he is a king; [therefore,] I will bestow honor upon him”. From here [we learn] that we must bestow honor upon royalty.”
Even though it was his own son, Jacob showed respect to his public position. In an ideal universe, national leadership must reflect an embodiment of the people. When dealing with such representation, we must manifest the dignity we have for the people. In a world with deteriorating social fabric and respectful conversation, we must do our utmost to respect the dignity of every person, including collective dignity and pride. We may disagree, we may beg to differ, we may chart a different path—as Jacob has done by asking to be buried in the land of Israel, but we must—must—raise the bar of mutual respect and honor those who we represent.