Before Yaakov’s death, he asked Yosef to perform an act of “truth and kindness”* (47:29) for him- “do not bury me in Egypt” (47:29). Rashi explains that Yaakov singled out Yosef for this assignment, because as viceroy of Egypt he was uniquely positioned to carry it out. Later in the parsha however, we see that Yaakov gave all of his children the same instructions. After Yaakov blessed all of his sons, he said to them (as a group): “’I am going to join my people [in death],’ he said. ‘Bring me to my fathers, to be buried in the cave in the field of Ephron the Hittite’” (49:29).
Yosef was told that his father was ill. He took his two sons to visit Yaakov, and Yaakov blessed Yosef: “Now, the two sons who were born to you in Egypt before I came here shall be considered as mine. Ephraim and Menashe shall be just like Reuven and Shimon to me” (48:5). Menashe and Efraim would receive a portion of Eretz Yisrael just like Yaakov’s sons.
Yaakov continued and said, “When I was coming from Padan, [your mother] Rachel died on me. It was in Canaan, a short distance before we came to Efrat. I buried her there along the road to Efrat (Bet Lechem)” (48:7). Rashi comments, “I’m asking you to go to the trouble of carrying me to burial in Eretz C’naan, even though I didn’t do so for your mother (Rachel) who died a short distance from Bet Lechem. I know that you remember this event in your heart, but know that it was because of G-d’s word that I buried her there, so that she will be able to assist her children as they pass by there when they will be exiled by Nevuzradan. Rachel rises upon her grave and begs for Mercy for her children, as the pasuk says, ‘ A voice was heard in Rama’ and Hashem answers her, “Thy work shall be rewarded…” (Yirmiyahu 31:14-15). This is a great and touching midrash about the power and role of Rachel during Am Yisrael’s exile from its land. The placement of the pasuk in which Yaakov mentions the burial of Rachel is baffling, because Yaakov had requested that Yosef bury him in Eretz C’naan during their previous meeting. Why did he wait until their next encounter to explain why he buried Rachel in Efrat?
The pasuk that follows Yaakov’s explanation is also difficult. “Yisrael saw Yosef’s sons. ‘Who are these?’ he asked” (48:8). Yaakov already knew his grandchildren! To explain this pasuk Rashi explains that Yaakov wished to bless them, but the Divine spirit left him because Yeravam and Achav** were to be future descendents of Ephraim, and Yehu with his sons were to be descendents of Menashe.
Yosef- the foreign minister
Yosef represents Bnei Yisrael’s ability to deal with the other nations, as we learned in Parshat Vayeitzei. “After Rachel had given birth to Yosef, Yaakov said to Lavan, ‘Let me leave. I would like to go home to my own land” (30:25). Yaakov was ready to return to Eretz C’naan only after Yosef was born, because he was then ready to deal with Eisav. Yosef prepared the ground for Bnei Yisrael’s extended stay in Egypt, teaching his brothers the proper approach to Egyptian culture. Yosef’s “diplomatic” capabilities are related to the talent that he displayed in strengthening Egypt’s economy. As Yosef told his brothers, “G-d sent me ahead of you to save lives!” (45:5). This is the role that Hashem intended for Yosef.
Yosef’s task can be difficult. Associating with other nations and financial dealings can cause the person fulfilling this role to lose the tahara and kedusha (purity and holiness) of Am Yisrael. Slowly he can be drawn towards the forces that he must associate with and possibly even forfeit his ties to Eretz Yisrael.
Even Yaakov felt that he was enjoying life in Egypt as he had never enjoyed life before. “Yaakov made Egypt his home for 17 years” (47:28). This verse appears extraneous, but it comes to teach us that Yaakov lived a comfortable life in Egypt.*** He also understood that this comfort could be problematic, and ruin the ties to Eretz Yisrael and the kedusha (sanctity) that comes with the association with Eretz Yisrael. Since Yosef represented the ties to Egypt, Yaakov wished to first speak to him alone. Yaakov told Yosef that Am Yisrael has no place in Egypt, and that even after his death he wants no part of Egypt, not even to be buried there.
Ephraim and Menashe
To strengthen the ties to Eretz Yisrael, Yaakov decided to give Ephraim and Menashe a portion of Eretz Yisrael. They were born and raised in Egypt, and are also representative of the dealings with that foreign land and its mundane culture. Yaakov saw the need to root them firmly in Eretz Yisrael by granting them a portion of the land, thereby ensuring that the spiritual and physical powers existent in Am Yisrael wouldwouldw be part of the Divine plan.
Yaakov saw that among Ephraim and Menashes’ descendents there would be kings who would cause Bnei Yisrael to worship idols. Idol worship in Am Yisrael stems from a foreign influence and is caused by a superficial and physical view of the world, not the Jewish spiritual viewpoint. That is why Yaakov asked, “Who are these?” He was questioning whether he was doing the right thing by blessing them with a part in Eretz Yisrael. Yaakov decided to bless them because he understood that despite the obstacles and pitfalls on the way, the shvatim (tribes) of Ephraim and Menashe would be part of Am Yisrael in revealing Hashem to the world.
Yaakov wished to explain to Yosef that his specific strength was the ability to represent Bnei Yisrael to other nations, but only if he would maintain a strong affiliation with Eretz Yisrael (and that’s why his sons received portions of the land). That’s when he mentioned Rachel’s death and her burial on the way to Bet Lechem. Rachel was the prime force in Yaakov’s household. She was the unifying influence upon Am Yisrael, giving them the ability to come together to form a nation. When we were exiled and set out from Eretz Yisrael to the four corners of the earth, the influence of Rachel came with us, protecting us from assimilating among the nations. That is why Rachel was buried along the way, and that is how she fulfills her role in Am Yisrael. She is a reminder to all of her descendents to fulfill their roles as well.
Yaakov gathered his sons to reveal the future to them, but the Shechina (Divine presence) left him. He thought that, G-d forbid, perhaps one of his children wasn’t worthy of continuing the tradition of Yisrael. His sons saw his hesitation and said: “Listen Yisrael, G-d is our Lord, G-d is One (D’varim 6:4). Just as your heart is dedicated to One, our hearts are also dedicated to One” (Bavli Psachim 56). As Yaakov reached the end of his days it became clear to him that all the different strengths and qualities of the emerging Am Yisrael are united in the mission given them by Hashem- to make Hashem’s name known in the world. That is why Yaakov repeated his request to be buried in Eretz Yisrael, but this time to all his sons. Each one of them, regardless of their unique individual nature and abilities must remain connected to Eretz Yisrael, and therefore they were all instructed to bring him there.
Following the blessings, Yaakov finished his final instructions to his sons, “…he gathered up his feet into the bed, and expired, and was gathered to his people” (49:33). This pasuk is discussed in the Talmud (Taanit 5). “Rabbi Yochanan said, ‘Yaakov our forefather didn’t die. Rav Nachman asked, ‘but the people eulogized him, embalmed him and then he was buried!’” The Gemara answered that Rabbi Yochanan meant to equate Yaakov to his descendents. Just as Yaakov’s descendents live, so too Yaakov lives. We can explain that the expression the Torah uses at Yaakov’s death, “gathered his feet”, indicates the lowest part of a person’s physical being. The feet are what implant a person in the physical world. He gathered his feet, teaching us that all the forces existent in Am Yisrael, from the highest and most spiritual, through the lowest, most physical, all were part of Yaakov’s bed and all can be dedicated to sanctifying One G-d. Yaakov’s legacy will never stop living, and in this sense Yaakov didn’t die.
Yosef understood the meaning of Yaakov’s instruction to be buried in Eretz Yisrael, and he too made his brothers take an oath, “G-d will surely visit you, and you shall carry up my bones from here” (50:25). Yosef’s task was not yet complete upon his death, and that is the reason that he was buried in Eretz Yisrael only many years later when all of Bnei Yisrael left Egypt and took Yosef’s bones with them.
In our times, we are experiencing the return of Am Yisrael to Eretz Yisrael. We too have to gather all the different qualities and powers of Am Yisrael and root them in Eretz Yisrael permanently, with G-d’s help bringing us to the full and final redemption.
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