The Two Promises Rabbi Jill Hammer
Parashat Vayechi, the Torah portion at the very end of the Book of Genesis, begins with a promise and ends with a promise. The Torah portion describes the last years of Jacob in Egypt.
It begins with the promise Joseph makes to Jacob: an oath that he will bury his father Jacob in the cave of Machpelah. As Jacob says: “Bury me with my fathers…” It ends with the promise that Jacob’s brothers make to Joseph that when their descendants leave Egypt, Joseph’s bones will accompany them. As Joseph says: “Carry up my bones from here.” What can we learn from these two promises?
Jacob desires to be rejoined with the land on which he lived, and with those whom he loves most.
The promise to Jacob relates to the past. In his deathbed request, Jacob asserts that he does not wish to be buried in Egypt. He emphasizes that he wants to be brought to the cave of Machpelah, specifying “in the field of Ephron the Hittite” so there will be no mistake about what he means. The cave of Machpelah is the family tomb, which Abraham bought from the residents of Canaan so Sarah could have a resting place. Jacob desires to be rejoined with the land on which he lived, and with those whom he loves most. After blessing his children, Jacob’s thoughts turn to his wife Leah, parents Rebekah and Isaac, and grandparents Abraham and Sarah. He wishes to be buried with them, observing the tradition of his family and mingling his bones with those of his ancestors. He must depend on his children to fulfill this longing.
Jacob’s children, by observing this last wish, do him chesed: great kindness. The sons of Jacob, who have hurt their father terribly in concealing from him that Joseph was sold into Egypt, attempt to set right their relationship to the past by honoring Jacob’s wishes. Jacob’s funeral is full of pomp and circumstance, as the family processes back to Canaan to inter the patriarch. Midrash Tanhuma on Parashat Vayechi notes that Joseph makes sure his father’s funeral is fit for a king—and receives the reward that Moses himself will see to Joseph’s bones.
The promise to Joseph, however, relates to the future. At the end of Genesis, Joseph is old and about to die. He will be buried in a coffin in Egypt, probably because he is an important Egyptian official and Pharaoh would not consent to bury him in the land of Canaan. Joseph’s relatives promise, on behalf of their descendants, that when God causes the Hebrew tribes to leave Egypt, they will retrieve Joseph’s bones and carry them to the land of Israel.
Joseph seems less concerned with being reunited with those he loves than with giving the nation of Israel something to live for.
Joseph does not specify a burial site; he only says: “Carry up my bones from here.” Joseph seems less concerned with being reunited with those he loves than with giving the nation of Israel something to live for. By exacting this promise, Joseph makes sure that the people must remember who he is, remember where he is buried, and remember their connection to the land of Canaan. The oath to Joseph means his family cannot forget who they are. Joseph is doing a chesed for his descendants: his deathbed request makes the Exodus possible. The Midrash Tanhuma quoted above indicates that while others are packing to leave Egypt, Moses is searching for the bones of Joseph so that the Exodus can unfold as it should.
These two promises reflect two aspects of our relationship to Torah. The central word of Jacob’s promise is kivru, bury, a word that indicates descent or downward motion. The promise to Jacob teaches us to show loyalty and love to our ancestors, respecting the people, ideas, and places they loved. One aspect of Torah is the call to live in harmony with the past. The other aspect of Torah is the call to prepare for those that will come after us by creating a world and a heritage that our distant descendants will find beautiful, useful and uplifting. The central word of Joseph’s promise is veha’alitem: lift up. This promise to Joseph, a word that indicates ascent or upward motion, teaches us to show love and loyalty to the generations to come. Our connection to humans, to the world, and to the Holy One reverberates between these two promises.
May we too fulfill these promises. May we care for the planet, for its people, and for our tradition in such a way that we extend our love to the past, and give those who come afterward something to treasure. May we embody the mystery of Joseph’s bones by becoming partners in creating the future world.