And Joseph made the Israelites swear an oath and said, “God will surely come to your aid, and then you must carry my bones up from this place.” — Genesis 50:25
This Torah portion for this week is Vayechi, which means “and he lived,” from Genesis 47:28–50:26, and the Haftorah is from 1 Kings 2:1–12.
At the end of the Torah portion, Joseph also died as his father before him. However, unlike Jacob who had made his children promise to bury him in the land of Canaan, Joseph allowed his children to bury him in Egypt. But he also reminded them that their stay in Egypt would be temporary, and he made them promise to take his bones with them when they left.
The Jewish sages ask why didn’t Joseph have his children bury him in Canaan in the first place?
They suggest that Joseph knew that the Pharaoh would never agree to it. Joseph was considered royalty in Egypt and it would have been a great insult to Egypt – and therefore a great danger to the Israelites – if Joseph had insisted on being buried in the Holy Land. Perhaps Joseph felt that being buried in Egypt was his only choice.
However, there is also the possibility that Joseph preferred to be buried in Egypt, at least temporarily. Not because he liked Egypt better than Canaan, but because he feared that his children might like Egypt better than Canaan. Joseph understood the human condition that would plague the Jewish people for centuries. We are creatures of habit and once we change our habitat, it’s hard to go back.
Joseph knew that by being buried in Egypt and making his descendants promise to move him one day, they would always remember that Egypt was not home. They would visit their father’s grave and be reminded of the promise they had made to him. Joseph’s grave became a point of clarity for the Israelites. It kept them focused on the future and on their ultimate goal.
In life, we often make ourselves goals that aren’t attainable in the present. We don’t have the time, the energy, the funding, and so forth. Sometimes the right thing to do is to put off a goal until the right time. But it’s also important to remember our dreams and revisit them periodically. It’s so easy to get caught up in daily life that we forget what we are even working toward!
Jews have a custom to leave one wall in their homes unfinished. Some people actually have exposed bricks in a section of an otherwise perfect wall. This reminds us that God’s home, the Holy Temple, is unfinished. While we live in our comfortable homes, we remind ourselves that we are not yet settled – we can never be settled until God’s home is rebuilt.
What are your dreams? Do you remember what you are working toward? Take a moment and revisit your earliest aspirations. Consider placing a symbolic reminder of that dream somewhere in your home.
With prayers for shalom, peace,
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
Founder and President