In his introduction to Sefer Bereishit, the Netziv (Rav Naftali Zvi Yehuda) famously refers to this book as Sefer Hayashar, the book of the righteous. The reason he refers to the book with this name is due to our forefathers and foremothers focus on caring for those around them, and their general commitment to chessed, which we aim to emulate. As we conclude Sefer Bereishit this week with the reading of Parshat Vayechi, we find that this all-important lesson can be seen once again at the conclusion of the Sefer.
The Torah tells us (Bereishit 47:29-31) that at the end of his life, Yaakov made his son Yosef swear to him that he would ensure Yaakov would be buried together with Avraham and Yitzchak in the land of Israel, and not in Egypt. The two classic approaches for understanding Yaakov’s request are given by Rashi and the Ramban. Rashi explains that Yaakov was afraid the Egyptians would transform him into an idol after his death and therefore wanted to be buried in Israel, outside of Egypt. The approach of the Ramban and others is that Yaakov wanted to be buried in Israel as those buried in Israel will be the first to be resurrected in the Messianic Era. However, there exists another, lesser known approach to this question, one that leaves us with a beautiful message to end off such an important book of the Torah.
The Medrash Hagadol, a collection of 14th Century Yemenite writings, gives us another perspective on Yaakov’s request. Yaakov’s request was not made out of self-interest. Rather, it was made due to his deep concern for his descendants, the future Jewish People. Yaakov had gone down to Egypt for one reason- to survive the famine. However, he began to notice something very troubling during his time there. He noticed that his children had begun to thrive in Egypt, acquiring great wealth and status in their newly adopted country. Along with this great success had come a lack of desire to return to their true home, the land of Israel. As Rabbi Samson Rephael Hirsch writes, “Jacob noticed what a powerful influence Egypt was beginning to have on his descendants, how they already began to see the Jordan in the Nile, and to find their stay in Egypt as no exile. It is this attitude which motivated Jacob to press with such ceremonious solemnity…that they should not bury him in Egypt, but that they should carry him to their old true homeland. It was motive enough for Jacob to say to them: 'You hope and wish to live in Egypt, I do not wish even to be buried there!'”
We learn a very powerful message from Yaakov as it relates to the connection of his descendants to the land of Israel. Although our lives are here outside the land of Israel, we must do everything we can to think about Israel and our brothers and sisters there, doing everything we can to help and support them. On the heels of the fast day of Asarah B’Tevet, a day that commemorates the beginning of the Siege of Jerusalem, we must always remember how central the land of Israel is to our lives and the life of our people.
Rabbi Jeff Ney
Director of Student Programming, High School