In our story this week, Jacob begins making preparations for his eminent death.
וַיִּקְרְב֣וּ יְמֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֘ל לָמוּת֒ וַיִּקְרָ֣א ׀ לִבְנ֣וֹ לְיוֹסֵ֗ף וַיֹּ֤אמֶר לוֹ֙ אִם־נָ֨א מָצָ֤אתִי חֵן֙ בְּעֵינֶ֔יךָ שִֽׂים־נָ֥א יָדְךָ֖ תַּ֣חַת יְרֵכִ֑י וְעָשִׂ֤יתָ עִמָּדִי֙ חֶ֣סֶד וֶאֱמֶ֔ת אַל־נָ֥א תִקְבְּרֵ֖נִי בְּמִצְרָֽיִם׃
“And when the day of Israel’s death drew near, he called to his son Joseph and said to him, ‘If I have found favor in your eyes, put your hand under my thigh [swearing to me] and do me this act of kindness and truth – please do not bury me in Egypt” (Breishit 47:29).
In the pshat – the ‘first glance read’ of the text – Jacob’s request appears to be a simple expression of his prefered resting place. It feels natural that he wants to be buried in his ‘pre-purchased plot’ alongside Leah, Avraham, and Isaac. Jacob, however, makes much more than the necessary arrangements. He goes above and beyond by not just accepting a mere promise, but forcing Joseph to swear a binding oath. As a triple check, Jacob gathers together all his sons and gives his final directive one last time. If burial is only for the dead, than it is easy to think Jacob is simply paranoid in making certain his last wishes are fulfilled. Laying someone to rest, however, also plays an essential role in the grieving process. Funerals are just as much, if not more, for the living as they are for the deceased.
At this point in our story, Joseph is completely ingrained into the fabric of Egyptian society. He and his sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, have fully assimilated. So much so that when presented before Jacob, he does not even recognize them, asking, “Who are these?” (Breishit 48:8).
It makes perfect sense that Jacob wants to be buried along side his wife and forefathers. Yet, this does not seem to be his primary motivation. He knows that choosing the details of his death is also an act of choosing how his loved ones will mourn. Jacob is ensuring his descendants remember that, while Egypt is currently very good for them, the delta is not their home.
Aside from a few concluding details, this story closes the book of Breishit. The family is reunited, and we have found salvation in Egypt. Despite the sunny horizons, Jacob buries one last piece of wisdom before the skies darken. He requests his children carry him out of Egypt as an act of remembering who they are and where they come from.
Whenever I reconnect with roots, I am powerfully filled with the warm comfort of familiarity and belonging. It is a nostalgic – gut, heart, smile – experience with a profound centering of the mind and soul.
It is my hope that we are able to heed the call in spiritually escorting our forefathers back to Israel. In doing so, I pray we remember all that makes us who we are and how our individual roots help define our unique ability to bring light into God’s world.