Sedra Shorts

Ideas and commentaries on the weekly Torah readings.

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Location: Bet Shemesh, Israel

I taught Tanach in Immanuel College, London and in Hartman, Jerusalem. I was also an ATID fellow for 2 years. At present, I work for the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora, in Bar-Ilan University, Israel. The purpose of this blog is to provide "sedra-shorts", short interesting ideas on the weekly Torah reading. Please feel free to use them and to send me your comments.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Parshat VaYechi

The Grave Yaakov had Dug

When Yaakov realized that he was dying, he called for Yoseph and asked him to: "place your hand beneath my thigh…do not bury me now in Egypt" (Bereshit 47:29).

Yoseph said: "I will do as you say" (ibid 30), but that was not good enough for Yaakov. He made him swear to him, so Yoseph "swore to him" (ibid 31) that he would bury him in Canaan.

Once "the days of his weeping had passed" (ibid 50:4), Yoseph was able to send a message to Pharaoh and speak to him about the oath he had sworn to his father.

Yoseph tells Pharaoh of Yaakov's dying wish, saying: "'In my grave, which I dug for myself in the land of Canaan, there you shall bury me'". So now, please let me go up and bury my father and return (ibid 5)".

It is obvious why Yoseph did not quote his father accurately when he overlooked the words: "Do not bury me in Egypt" as that would have been extremely insulting to the host king. However, why does he speak of the grave that Yaakov had dug? Yaakov never mentioned that he had dug his own grave before. On the contrary, he was going to be buried in the Cave of Machpela, the family tomb.

Most commentators say that the Hebrew word used for "dug", actually means "prepared in advance". Some modern commentators want to suggest that this text refers to a variant tradition that Israel had about the location of Yakov's final resting place.

The concept of the variant tradition for graves already appears at another place in this week's parsha; with Rachel. Yaakov recalls her death, saying: "I buried her there on the way to Ephrat, which is Bet Lechem" (ibid 48:7).

Everyone knows that Bet Lechem (Bethlehem) is a city just south of Jerusalem. We have a shrine there that many believe to be Rachel's Tomb. However, this location contradicts a text we have in Sefer Yirmiyahu.

There, the prophet imagines Rachel crying, as her sons, i.e. the Jewish people, pass by her tomb, on their journey into exile, to Babylon (see Yirmiyah 31:14-16). In order for this to occur, Rachel's tomb must have been in northern Israel, as it makes no sense for the Babylonians to have taken Jerusalem's exile to Babylon, via Bet Lechem, for it is totally the wrong way.

However, rather than saying that there are two traditions for Rachel's burial place, we could simply say that we are mistaken for thinking that the Torah was referring to the Bet Lechem that is south of Jerusalem. It is very possible that it was referring to the Bet Lechem, another city with exactly the same name, in northern Israel. Indeed, it is strange for us to consider that Rachel, the mother of the northern tribes, would have been buried in the territory of Judah, the leading son of Leah.

So too Yospeh's misquote need not bring us to there being variant tradition as to the whereabouts of his grave.

We now know that Ancient Egypt had a death obsessed religion. Wealthy Egyptians would invest all their energies and wealth in preparing for the after-life. This included the building of lavish tombs.

The Daat Mikra suggests that Yospeh spoke in a language that Pharaoh would understand well. He emphasized that Yaakov wanted to be buried in Canaan because he already prepared his tomb in Canaan. Pharaoh would therefore, find Yospeh's request more than reasonable.

Therefore, rather than there being an alternative burial place for Yaakov, Yoseph merely quoted Yaakov freely in way that would make his request to bury him in Canaan, more palatable to Pharaoh.

Last years' Sedra Short on Parshat VaYechi, entitled: "The Adoption of Ephraim and Menashe" appears at
Another Sedra Short on Parshat VaYechi, entitled: "The Mummification of Yaakov" appears at

A further Sedra Short on Parshat VaYechi, entitled: "Yoseph's inheritance" appears at

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4:07 PM  

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