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Parashat Vayechi: Going Home

Excerpted from Rabbi Aaron Goldscheider’s Torah United: Teachings on the Weekly Parasha from Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, and the Chassidic Masters, co-published by OU Press and Ktav Publishing House

Going Home

Yaakov is keenly aware of death’s approach. He summons Yosef and makes him swear to bury him in the Land of Israel, in the city of Chevron. This apparently opens an old wound, as Rachel, Yosef ’s mother, was not buried in the special burial cave there – me’arat ha-machpelah. Although the obedient Yosef does not verbalize a complaint, Yaakov senses the air suddenly grow tense. He explains that he had to bury her along the way, but he does not justify why he could not have continued perhaps a day’s journey past Beit Lechem to bury her with her ancestors. What was the reason for this?

Land and Torah 
The Ramban first explicates the opinion of Rashi, who says that it was a divine decree that she be buried in Beit Lechem. Her descendants would pass by her plot as they went into exile, and she would cry and pray for them. The Ramban suggests that this is implied by the repetition of “on the road” (Genesis 48:7), meaning, on the road from Yerushalayim into exile.

The Ramban later claims that all of this is apologetics, as the real reason Yaakov did not bury her in the cave was that two sisters should not be buried there, for he would be embarrassed before his forefathers. In other words, the forefathers who observed the entire Torah would be affronted by the fact that Yaakov did not uphold the Torah’s prohibition against marrying two sisters. But if there was a problem, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik wondered, why did he marry Rachel after having married Leah? Elsewhere, the Ramban develops the novel idea that the Patriarchs kept the 613 mitzvot only when they lived in the Land of Israel, and Yaakov married the two sisters while he was in Charan. It would only be an affront now to his ancestors and descendants to bury two sister-wives next to each other in the place where the entire Torah must be kept. This was also why Rachel had to die once she entered the borders of Israel.

Jewish Status
In this context, a fundamental issue needs to be addressed: What was the status of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs before the giving of the Torah? Did they have the status of benei Noach, with full halachic status only coming into effect once the nation of Israel accepted the Torah at Sinai? It is here that the Ramban makes a striking assertion: The Patriarchs bore the status of full-fledged Jews, but only when they resided in the Land of Israel.

The Rav finds a source for the Ramban’s idea in the berit bein ha-betarim, the Covenant between the Parts:

I will establish My covenant between Me and between you and your seed after you, throughout the generations as an everlasting covenant, to be God for you and your seed after you. And I will give
you and your seed after you the land of your sojourning, the entire land of Canaan as an everlasting possession, and I will be their God. (Genesis 17:7–8)

A central component of this covenant between God and Avraham and his family was “the acknowledgment of the unique and preeminence of the Land of Israel as the central arena for the fulfillment of Jewish destiny.” Without this element, the covenant was incomplete. In other words, the attachment to the Land of Israel as the Jewish homeland was established and made the underpinning of Jewish identity even prior to Sinai, when the covenant was still familial. This would change at Sinai, when the covenant shifted from family to nation. Therefore, prior to the giving of the Torah, it would seem that this familial covenant did not fully apply outside the Land, and Yaakov could marry two sisters.

Longing for the Land
Echoing his father’s request at the beginning of the parashah (Genesis 47:29–31), Yosef insists that his final resting place be in the Land of Israel: “I am about to die, but God will surely remember you and bring you out of this land, to the land that he swore [to give] to Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov . . . bring up my bones from here” (Genesis 50:24–25). Moshe would carry out this request (Exodus 13:19), and the Midrash tells us it is because Yosef identified himself as belonging to the Land of Israel: “for I was stolen from the land of the Hebrews” (Genesis 40:15).5 Even after becoming a royal, heroic figure in his adopted country, Yosef’s heart lay with his beloved homeland. Throughout, Yosef remained an ivri, a Hebrew, rather than an Egyptian.

If the familial tie to the land was unbreakable, why did Yosef not make his sons swear to take up his bones instead of his brothers? The Meshech Chochmah (Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk) proposes that Yosef prophetically foresaw that his son Menashe would settle half of his tribe in Transjordan, outside the actual borders of the land. The older son might decide to have Yosef buried in his portion, so Yosef did not want to risk being buried outside the promised land. He therefore did not ask his own children to be responsible for this task.

The Rav was told a fascinating story about the reinterment of Baron Edmond James de Rothschild (1845–1934), the magnanimous magnate who provided the financial support for the fledgling New Yishuv in Ottoman Palestine, by his son, Baron Alain de Rothchild (1910–1982). Edmond James devoted so much of his energy and means to reviving the land that he stipulated in his will that he be buried in Israel. When, years later, he was accordingly disinterred and reburied in Israel, Charles de Gaulle, then president of France, commented, “I thought he was a loyal Frenchman. Isn’t France good enough for him to be buried here?” The Rav observed that neither Pharaoh nor de Gaulle could understand the nature of the Jew and his bond with the Land of Israel.

Reb Chaim’s Dream
In describing his own upbringing, the Rav recounted a home aglow with passion for the Holy Land. This was especially true of his renowned grandfather Rav Chaim Brisker: [T]he Land of Israel occupied a major role in my house. My grandfather, Reb Chaim, was the first to halachically analyze, define, and conceptualize on an extraordinary intellectual level the topics pertaining to the Land of Israel. These included such topics as the sanctity of the Land, the sanctity of partitions, temporary sanctification and eternal sanctification of the Land of Israel. . . . These terms represented not only concepts, abstract thoughts, and formal insights, but they also reflected deep-rooted emotions of love, yearnings, and vision for the Land of Israel. Discussions of the sanctity of the Land of Israel, the holiness of walled cities, the sanctity of Jerusalem, were my lullabies, my bedtime stories. Reb Chaim was perhaps the greatest lover of Zion in his generation. He constantly delighted in the thought that after he married off all his children, he would transfer his rabbinate to one of his sons and then settle in the Land of Israel. There he would purchase an orchard and fulfill the agricultural laws which pertain to the Land of Israel.

Exploring the Rav’s Insight
While usually parashiyot are separated from each another by a considerable space, the first word of Parashat Vayechi is minimally separated from the last word of Parashat Vayigash. According to Rashi, this alludes to the impending bondage of the Jewish people in Egypt following the death of Yaakov. Rebbe Meir Yechiel Halevi Halstock, the Ostrovtser Rebbe, articulated a deeper symbolism in his Me’ir Einei Chachamim. In Vayigash, Yaakov is in the Land of Israel and has not yet descended to Egypt. In Shemot, the redemption has already been set in motion. Vayechi is the only parashah in which Yaakov and his sons are fully in the Egyptian exile, even if not suffering bondage. The only way to survive the exile is to maintain a strong link to our homeland. If this parashah were “open,” that is, separated like every other parashah from the preceding one, it would symbolize a complete disconnect of the Jewish people from their land. With the two parashiyot closely joined as they are, the vital lifeline holds. The Jews will return to the land from every exile. The bookends of Parashat Vayechi therefore show that the heart and soul of the Jew always yearn to go home.