“The Passing of a Patriarch”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayechi, we read of the passing of the patriarch Jacob. The Torah tells us that as soon as Jacob had completed delivering his final testament to his sons, he drew his feet onto the bed, (Genesis 49:33): “Va’yig’vah, va’yay’ah’sayf el ah’mahv,” he expired, and was gathered to his people.

The beginning of Genesis 50 describes the elaborate mourning, funeral and burial rituals that were conducted on behalf of Jacob. The Torah states that when Joseph realized that his father had passed on, he fell on Jacob’s face, cried and kissed him, and instructed the physicians to embalm his father. After the forty day process of embalming had concluded, the Egyptians cried for Jacob for an additional seventy days.

Joseph then asks permission from Pharaoh to leave Egypt in order to accompany his father for burial at the family tomb in Canaan. Pharaoh allows Joseph to go, and Joseph and his entourage travel to Canaan, accompanied by all of Pharaoh’s servants, the elders of Pharaoh’s household, all the elders of Egypt, as well as both chariots and horsemen. They were, of course, joined by Joseph’s entire household, his brothers and his father’s household. However, the young Israelite children and the family’s flocks and cattle remained in Goshen.

When the entourage crossed the Jordan and arrived at Goren HaAtad, extensive eulogies were delivered, and a seven day mourning period for Jacob was observed. The mourning was so intense that when the Canaanite inhabitants of the land saw it, they exclaimed, (Genesis 50:11): “Ay’vel ka’vayd zeh l’Mitzrayim,” this is a profound mourning for Egypt, and called the name of the place Avel Mitzrayim.

Jacob’s sons followed the procedures that Jacob had precisely laid out for them out before his demise. After transporting Jacob’s body to the land of Canaan, they buried him in the Cave of Machpelah, whereupon Joseph and the entourage returned to Egypt.

Because of the many delicate political and religious issues, the logistics of Jacob’s funeral and burial process were quite complicated, and many questions are raised by the commentators concerning the procedures. The sages, cited in the Talmud Ta’anit 5b, emphasize Jacob’s great holiness. In fact, they maintain that since the Torah does not explicitly state that Jacob died as it does at the passing of Abraham and Isaac, it must be that Jacob did not actually die, but lives on spiritually through his offspring who maintain Jacob’s values and heritage.

An obvious question raised by Jacob’s funeral and burial is Joseph’s decision to embalm his father. The Egyptians were renowned as master embalmers, and funeral directors to this day would give their right arms to learn the secret of the Egyptian process. The Torah, however, forbids embalming, based on G-d’s statement to Adam (Genesis 3:19): “For from dust you came and to dust shall you return.” Jewish law requires that the body of the deceased decompose naturally. Our commentators explain, however, that once Joseph realized that there would be a long delay from the time of death until the burial, he had Jacob’s body embalmed to prevent decay–a more disrespectful prospect. Secondly, even though there is a tradition that the bodies of the righteous do not decompose, Joseph was afraid that if the Egyptians saw Jacob’s non-decomposing body they would begin to worship Jacob as a deity. Hence, the body was embalmed.

The fact that Joseph required Pharaoh’s permission to leave the land for the burial of his father implies that he was not a truly absolute monarch. It is likely that the Egyptians were fearful that the man who saved their country from famine would abandon them for Canaan, and would not be available should there be any future crises. The question remains, would a non-Jewish viceroy also have had to ask for permission, or was it only Joseph, the Hebrew, who required Pharaoh’s approval to leave?

Pharaoh allows Joseph to accompany his father’s body, saying, (Genesis 50:6): “Go up and bury your father as he made you swear.” The commentaries note that Pharaoh’s allusion to the oath indicates that old Jacob well understood that Pharaoh would be reluctant to allow Joseph to leave the country to attend his father’s funeral. By referring to the oath, Pharaoh showed that he respected the promise that Joseph had made. Perhaps Pharaoh was also superstitious about denying an oath that was made to Jacob, the holy man, on his deathbed.

Our commentators point to the fact that Genesis 50:8 states that Pharaoh did not permit the children or the flocks to leave with the burial entourage. The sages maintain that Pharaoh actually held the children and the flocks hostage, to make certain that Joseph and his family would return to Egypt. The rabbis indicate that this action was probably the first actual step of the Egyptian bondage, that began as soon as Jacob passed away.

Scripture states that Jacob is mourned in a place known as Goren HaAtad, which literally means “the field or the threshing floor of thorns.” The Midrash, quoted by Rashi from the Talmud, tractate Sotah, 13a, says that many of the kings of Canaan and the princes of Ishmael tried to prevent the burial of Jacob from taking place in Canaan, but when they saw Joseph’s crown hanging on Jacob’s coffin, they realized Egypt’s superior power, and, in submission to Joseph, hung their own crowns as well on the coffin of Jacob. The 36 crowns hanging on the coffin gave the appearance of a field of thorns, hence the name Goren HaAtad.

As already noted, according to tradition, Jacob had instructed his sons exactly how to carry his coffin. Their positions around the coffin became the actual positions where, in the future, the tribes encamped about the Tabernacle. Of course, Levi and Joseph were excluded from carrying, Levi because he was to become the holy minister in the Tabernacle, and Joseph because of the dignity of the monarchy.

The Midrash, cited by the Talmud, Sotah 13a, relates that Esau tried to prevent the burial of Jacob in the patriarchal tomb at Maarat Hamachpelah, and that Jacob’s fleet-footed son, Naphtali, ran all the way back to Egypt to bring the owner’s deed to prove that Jacob was entitled to be buried there. Chushim, however, the deaf son of Dan, felt that this delay was a disgrace to his deceased grandfather, and proceeded to decapitate Esau with a club. Esau’s head rolled into the cave and stopped at Jacob’s feet. The rabbis suggest that Esau’s head merited burial in the patriarchal tomb because of the fact that, during his lifetime, Esau always showed respect to his father, Isaac.

The passing of a parent, no matter how aged, is frequently a challenging time for children. The passing of the patriarch Jacob was a particularly difficult occasion because of the political and social issues that needed to be taken into consideration in gaining permission to remove Jacob’s body from Egypt and transporting it to Canaan. No matter what the age of a parent, and notwithstanding all the preparations made in advance, no one is totally prepared or fully “together” at the actual moment of death.

Jacob had given his children punctilious instructions, down to the littlest detail, of who was to stand where around the coffin. But, there were also the Egyptian traditions that had to be taken into account. The seemingly omnipotent Joseph was no longer all-powerful, and it was necessary for him and the brothers to make a number of concessions in order to ensure that Jacob’s funeral would be allowed to take place at all, and that his burial would be in the place that he wished, fulfilling the traditions of his people.

Perhaps because his children were so fastidious about fulfilling Jacob’s wishes, it is said that father Jacob did not die, but lives on. It is by fulfilling the traditions of Judaism, that not only father Jacob lives on, but Israel and the Jewish people live on as well.

May you be blessed.