Anne Gordon
Anne Gordon
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You can’t get out of this world alive

The living do far more than comfort themselves when they escort the dead to their final resting place, as Jacob and his sons reveal (Vayechi)
'Burial of Jacob,' from the Nuremberg Bible. (1479)
'Burial of Jacob,' from the Nuremberg Bible. (1479)

When the lung cancer that would be the death of Isaac Kaplan started reaching for his brain (it does that, apparently), he turned to the doctors and asked whether it would affect the part of mind that knows the Torah. At 80, he was still the powerful ba’al koreh, Torah-reader, that he had become in his youth, in the fifth generation of his family to undertake that role. The verses of the Torah were “shegurah be-fiv,” fluid in his mouth — or, always available to him.

The following should not be surprising, then. 

When Isaac Kaplan arrived at his Brooklyn, NY home, from what would turn out to be his final journey, not abroad, but to, and then from, those physicians of the Massachusetts hospital that had cared for him, and could not make him well, an agitated man accosted the family (Mr. Kaplan was traveling with his wife and one of his daughters) with rapid-fire Spanish — apparently, asking for money. Mrs. Kaplan, in full protective mode, tried to shoo the man away; it was a heavy-hearted homecoming, after all, and she wanted to settle her husband in the house. But Mr. Kaplan stopped to listen, and realized that the barrage of Spanish came from Hector’s son. Hector had been the foreman at Mr. Kaplan’s business for many decades. Now, it turned out, he had died, and the son had come to find his father’s former lifelong boss, with a request that he finance the transportation of Hector’s remains back to El Salvador, the land of the foreman’s birth, a place he had not lived for half a century.

Mr. Kaplan said: It is a great mitzvah to help a man to his final resting place. He quoted this week’s parsha, Vayechi — the return of Jacob’s body to the Land of Canaan, upon his death — and insisted that his wife write the $3,000 check for Hector’s son.

I was not there, but I know this story to be true. Isaac Kaplan was my grandfather.

* * *

Jacob’s request of his children that they bury him in Canaan is not a request. 

And he charged them, and said to them: “I am to be gathered unto my people; bury me with my fathers in the cave that is in the field of Ephron the Hittite, in the cave that is in the field of Machpelah, which is before Mamre, in the land of Canaan, which Abraham bought with the field from Ephron the Hittite for a possession of a burying-place. There they buried Abraham and Sarah, his wife; there they buried Isaac and Rebekah, his wife; and there I buried Leah. The field and the cave that is therein, which was purchased from the children of Heth.” (Gen. 49:29-32)

The English translation does not quite convey the power of the Hebrew to modern ears. Namely: va-yetzav — he commanded his children to bury him in the Cave of Machpelah. This, after he had blessed each of his sons, never mind that this biblical blessing seems to be descriptive or prophetic or even determinative, and not the kind of wish or prayer that we express in modern day “blessings” at lifecycle events, and the like. And then, with all of those pronouncements upon his family, and having assured himself that his final wishes would be carried out, as the Bible gently puts it in the next verse, Jacob “gathered up his feet into the bed, and expired, and was gathered unto his people.”

In our modern era of science, where life and death are sometimes seen as a series of molecular changes, the very concept of a final resting place is often regarded as a comfort for the mourners. Those who remain in the world of the living may well like to reflect on the pleasing setting for their dearly departed — despite the lack of sentience for those who have returned to the earth. More practically, a cemetery’s location likely determines the frequency that family will visit — again, a comfort for those paying respects.

At first blush, it seems that Jacob’s requirement pays little heed to the mourner’s comfort. By having his remains removed to the Land of Canaan, he essentially ensures that his family, by then firmly settled in Goshen, would not visit regularly — and perhaps never. Indeed, the request to be buried with one’s ancestors seems strange when one’s descendants are alive and well and in a different area altogether.

Perhaps Jacob simply wanted to be buried in the land of his ancestors. Perhaps Jacob wanted his sons to have to come together, to work together, in some kind of atonement for the conflicts between them (and against him) that earlier chapters of Genesis present in detail. Perhaps he wanted to challenge them to honor his preference (never mind that he would not know if they rose to the occasion). Any of these motivations might be sufficient reason to stipulate a burial place far from the family’s residence, with its inherent discomfort for the mourners.

And yet. Jacob’s demand to be buried in the Land of Israel in fact may be understood to establish a profound level of comfort that goes beyond that needed by the traditional mourner. Even as Jacob’s children and grandchildren were settled in Egypt, his own roots in the Land of Israel ran deep (recall his exile from there, in the face of Esau’s wrath) — and deeper than those of his children. Says Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888), Jacob was aware of this discrepancy. He saw his progeny assimilating in Egypt, blurring their immediate reality with their history and heritage. He surely knew of God’s promise to the family that they would be slaves in Egypt and eventually redeemed (Gen. 15). By insisting on his burial in the Land of Israel, Jacob fundamentally protested his sons’ acceptance of their surroundings. Egypt was not for the likes of them, not for the long-haul — to the extent that he was not even willing to be buried there! So, in his final act, the patriarch provoked a journey “home” for the family, and for all that they were not about to move back at that point, the experience shifted their new Goshen norms and infused their identities with an awareness that they did not belong in Egypt. Under the duress of the slavery that was to come, that knowledge of a homeland far from the oppressive overseers surely provided comfort (and eventually the means to cry out to God for the salvation that He had Moses forge).

According to this approach, Jacob’s command was therefore all for the sake of his heirs — if not for their immediate physical comfort, then for the benefit of developing their sense of self and for the comfort and inspiration of several generations thereafter.

But the importance of a final resting place — and Jacob’s in particular, in the Cave of Machpelah, or the Cave of the Patriarchs, so named because he and his forebears are buried there — goes beyond its value for one’s descendants (especially as not all who die have descendants). The Gemara is clear that the very act of burial in the Land of Israel “brings atonement to the deceased, and eases the process of the resurrection of the dead” (Ketubot 111a). The benefit of burial in the Land of Israel belongs, therefore, to the deceased. Moreover, when the rabbis of the Midrash ask why the forefathers went to such great lengths to be buried in the Land of Israel, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi quotes Psalms: “Go before God, in the land of the living” (116:9) — the dead themselves merit a presence before God, once their corporeality is in this land. Indeed, this focus in burial in the Land of Israel is none too different from the contemporary market, whereby people buy burial plots in Israel, and El Al has a separate compartment for those bodies flown to Israel for burial, out of respect for the kohanim on board, to preserve their status as untouched by the impurity of death.

The problem is that bringing the dead to the Land of Israel would seem to pollute it, as it were, with all that impurity of death. In the same Gemara, Rabbi Elazar raises this concern: “You’ll come and render my land impure, and make my portion in the land an abomination — in your lifetime, you did not go up (move to the Land of Israel), and now in death, you’re going to corrupt my land?!” (Sanhedrin 111). The impurity of death is considered the nadir of impurity that is possible. Is this a selfishness, then, on the part of those who would be buried in Israel?

It is the commentators’ job to explain how that is not the case. The response of Don Yitzchak Abarbanel (1437-1508), in particular, provides a strong defense against the aspersions that Rabbi Elazar casts upon those who would be buried in the Land of Israel without having lived there. Namely, those who lived the good life — ahem, that of adherence to Torah and mitzvot — walked “in the light of God, in the land of the living.” Their conduct while alive, therefore, justifies their burial in the “land of the living,” because it is figuratively where they were living all the while. Thus, the bodies of these righteous people do not render the land impure, because “their very bodies were vessels of holiness and purity…” Thus, Jacob’s burial in the Land of Israel is never considered polluting the land. Nor is that of Joseph, generations later, when the former slaves make sure to bring the bones of the viceroy of Egypt with them in their exodus, for burial in the land. But what about those who were not particularly righteous? Or even particularly not righteous? Abarbanel maintains that their descendants will do acts of righteousness in the merit of their less worthy relatives, including the very act of burial. Those acts of kindness then transform the deceased, making them worthy of burial in the Land of Israel. 

Note that Abarbanel does not say that the acts of kindness transform the one who performs them. That may well be a given, just as the mourning customs hopefully provide comfort for the mourners. He goes farther — those who can no longer perform mitzvot, or really do anything for themselves, are nonetheless changed (bettered) by the acts of those who do for them, on their behalf. Indeed, they are purified through the actions of others, perhaps in no small part because they cannot repay the favor. That is, even as a person surely benefits from his or her own selflessness, the implication here is that the recipient of that kindness benefits as well. This “chesed shel emet” — the truest of kindness, in that the dead cannot repay it — is surely to the credit of the one who performs it, but it also boosts the merit of the recipient. Thus, while Jacob’s sons honored their father’s will when they took the time and exerted the effort to make the trip to Canaan together as a family to bring his remains to the resting place of his choosing, they actually accomplished more than that. Their act of chesed shel emet ensured that their father deserved the very kindness they provided, their great mitzvah in returning him to the heartland of their homeland, and establishing it as his final resting place.

About the Author
Anne Gordon is the deputy editor of Ops & Blogs at The Times of Israel and a co-founder of Chochmat Nashim. She has taught Judaic Studies widely, in the US and Israel, and studied in the various women's batei midrash for nearly a decade. She is a graduate of Drisha Insitute's Scholars Circle and holds a BA in History & Philosophy and an MA in Judaic Studies from Harvard University, and is ABD in her pursuit of a PhD in Jewish Education.
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