Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 11 January 2020 / 14 Tevet 5780

Parshat Vayechi

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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As Yaakov approaches the end of his days, he calls to Yosef, expressing his last wish: Please…deal with me with chesed [lovingkindness] and truth; please to not bury me in Egypt!

What is meant by chesed and truth? Chesed is phonetically related to the word for overflow, and means to devote oneself entirely, to literally spill over one’s goodness. Emet, truth, qualifies and contains chesed, and in turn, preserves the true character of chesed.

Boundless love is a powerful force — powerful enough to break rules. Chesed with emet is a love that does not, out of intensity of devotion, lose sight of what is essential.

The same language is used to describe Eliezer’s mission to find a wife for Yitzchak, which includes a cautionary directive to ensure that Yitzchak does not relocate to Aram. Lest Eliezer be carried away by a chesed-driven desire to find a match for Yitzchak, he is anchored by the emet of ensuring her spiritual suitability and the suitability of Yitzchak’s environs. Here, Yaakov asks Yosef to act with chessed bound by emet. Yaakov knows well that Yosef will bury his father with pomp and splendor, but he tells him: For all your chesed, do not lose sight of emet. I would rather not be buried at all than be buried in Egypt.

Why was it so important for Yaakov not to be buried in Egypt?

The first burial plot mentioned in the Torah is the one that Avraham purchased for Sarah: he requests an achuzat kever. The word achuzah stems from the verb to hold. But achuzah does not imply that the owner holds the property — in fact the term refers to landed property and not to movable property. It is not that the owner holds the property — in fact, land cannot be held — but the land holds the owner. In a technical sense, land physically holds and supports its inhabitant. It also holds the owner in an economic sense, as it can serve as a guarantor of debt. And land also has a powerful spiritual hold over its owner. Avraham, in searching for a permanent, everlasting burial site for Sarah, wanted that place to be in the Land of Israel. And so he purchased an achuzah, a “landholding” there.

Two verses before Yaakov instructs Yosef regarding his burial, we are told that the children of Yaakov settled in Egypt, and v’ye’achazu bah — “they acquired land there.” Literally, these words mean “and they allowed the land to take hold of them.” They became bound to the land, in the sense that Avraham intended Sarah to be bound eternally to the Land of Israel. Yaakov surely saw this and noted the powerful influence the land of Egypt had and would continue to have on his descendants. This motivated his entreaty that they not bury him in Egypt, but instead carry him to his homeland. In doing so, he sought to weaken the bond his children had established with Egypt and establish for himself an eternal bond with the Land of Israel. This was the emet of which he spoke when he gave Yosef burial instructions. No matter the pomp and circumstance which would characterize his burial in Egypt — he insisted that the chesed of giving him honor be informed by his emet of attachment to the Land of Israel.

  • Sources: Commentary, Genesis 47:29; 23:4

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