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Passover: The Exodus That Could Have Been
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Here’s the scene: Jacob, who is approaching death, calls for his beloved son, Joseph, and tells him that he wishes to be buried where his fathers were buried – a place known to us as the Cave of Machpelah, located in Hebron. The Torah then gives us Joseph’s response to his father’s request, Joseph says:
אָנֹכִי אֶעֱשֶׂה כִדְבָרֶךָ.
I‘ll do as you’ve asked (Genesis 47:30).
Now, if the Book of Genesis had ended right here, and you had to guess what the very next thing to happen was – what would you imagine taking place right now? I mean, if you were Jacob, lying there on your bed, and you had expressed this request to your loyal son, and he had answered – yes, father, you can totally count on me to bury you in the family tomb – what would you do next?
I don't know about you, but if I’d been in Jacob’s shoes at that moment, I might've said something like: Thank you very much, son. I knew I could count on you. I mean, something in that general ballpark, at least. But that is not at all what Jacob says. Instead, he tells his son this:
Swear to me [that you'll do it] (Genesis 47:31).
I mean, is this for real? Here is your loyal son, assuring you that he’ll do exactly what you asked of him. And you ask him to swear that he’ll really do it? What a terribly awkward thing to ask of him! Is Jacob intimating that he doesn't trust him?
Whatever Joseph might think of his father’s demand, Joseph takes the oath. And then Jacob does another strange thing:
וַיִּשְׁתַּחוּ יִשְׂרָאֵל, עַל-רֹאשׁ הַמִּטָּה.
And Jacob then bowed towards the head of the bed.
Why would he do that? The ancient sages of the Midrash wondered about that, and here was their interpretation:
עַל שֶהָיְתָה מִטָּתוֹ שְלֵמָה שֶאֵין בָּהּ רֶשַע, שֶהַרֵי יוֹסֵף מֶלֶך הוּא, וְעוֹד שֶנִשְבָּה לְבֵין הַגּוֹיִם, וְהַרֵי הוּא עוֹמֵד בְּצִדקוֹ
[He prostrated himself to God] because his legacy was whole, insofar as not one of [his children] was wicked – for Joseph was [Egyptian] royalty, and furthermore, he had been captured [and lived] among heathens, and yet he remained steadfast in his righteousness (Rashi, from Sifrei Va’etchanan 31, Sifrei Ha’azinu 334).
According to the Sages, when Joseph agreed with Jacob’s request, Jacob saw how righteous his son was. Despite Joseph's many years in Egypt, he had not assimilated into the heathen culture. Jacob now felt his legacy was ‘complete,’ and he bowed in gratitude.
But let’s take a moment to ponder what the Sages are actually telling us here. They suggest that Jacob had what amounts to a revelatory moment at the end of this discussion with him about burial arrangements. Seventeen years into his life in Egypt, he finally realized that his son had not assimilated into heathen culture. But should it really have taken Jacob seventeen years to realize this?
Put yourself in Jacob’s shoes. Looking back over the course of your life, if you could identify any one moment – and only one moment – at which you came to realize that yes, your beloved son Joseph, he was still a loyal, God-fearing member of this budding family of Israel, when would that moment have been?
It would've been seventeen years before this, right, when you first set eyes on your long-lost son Joseph after two decades of being apart. Joseph had run to greet him, had embraced him, had cried, had set the family up in Goshen, taken care of their every need. Look at him, he’s still a God-fearing man, Joseph is, he’s devoted to his family. Power hasn’t made him forget his roots. That seems like the moment Jacob should have realized what a good son Joseph is. Why then, do the Sages say that it’s only now, seventeen years later, on his deathbed, that Jacob understands this?
The Sages of the Midrash seem to be telling us that despite all of this, Jacob was uncertain whether Joseph would really fulfill his request, and that this was really the moment of truth that would decide whether he was a righteous son. He needed Joseph to swear to him that he’d bury him. Why?
But the truth is, if you keep on reading the story, if you fast forward to the moment that Jacob actually dies, and you watch what happens, you, see, I think, that Jacob was on to something to. It seems he had reason to fear, maybe, that his wishes to be buried in Canaan wouldn’t be so easy to fulfill. Look what happens when he dies.
The text tells us that Joseph weeps over the body of his father, and then he gets up. One would assume that if Joseph hadn’t yet spoken to Pharaoh about his father’s peculiar burial request, right about now would be the time to do that. But he doesn’t do it. Instead:
וַיְצַו יוֹסֵף אֶת-עֲבָדָיו אֶת-הָרֹפְאִים, לַחֲנֹט אֶת-אָבִיו; וַיַּחַנְטוּ הָרֹפְאִים, אֶת-יִשְׂרָאֵל
Joseph commanded his servants, the doctors, to embalm his father’s body. And they do so. .. Genesis 50:2).
Instead of speaking to Pharaoh about his father’s request, Joseph proceeds with what was apparently standard operating procedure for the death of a member of the royal family: he directs that Jacob’s body be embalmed. The strange thing is: The embalming process takes weeks – and still, Joseph remains silent. Why isn’t he saying anything?
Maybe he’s afraid to. Maybe he’s procrastinating. Maybe he is worried about how Pharaoh will respond to a request for burial in Canaan.
Consider this: Egypt seems to see itself as very emotionally invested in the death of Jacob. The text tells us that Egypt cried over the death of Jacob for seventy days. Compare those to the future deaths of Aaron and Moses; the Children of Israel, when they die, will only mourn each of those great leaders for 30 days. The Egyptians mourned for Jacob for 70. And it wasn’t even Jacob’s own nation that did that for him; it was a foreign nation! His death mattered, deeply, to them. Why?
Because… Who was Jacob, in Egypt’s eyes? Jacob is the the father of Egypt’s savior, Joseph. Joseph saved the people from starvation, and he is second in command to their king! And if Joseph is Egyptian royalty, then Jacob, his father, was treated by the nation, and by Pharaoh, as royalty, too. Which means that, when he dies, his funeral will be a state funeral. Pharaoh’s going to see to that.
But how do you think Pharaoh will feel about Egyptian royalty being buried in a little backwater of the Middle East called Canaan? Imagine Queen Elizabeth dies, she gets buried in Madagascar. Things like that don’t happen. To even make such a request of Egypt’s king would seem to be outrageous!
Jacob did have reason to make Joseph swear he’d bury him in Canaan. Jacob knew how hard it would be for Joseph to make the request of Pharaoh to be buried there. And he knew, once Joseph swore he would do it, that his son was righteous. Because in the ultimate test of loyalty, his son had just chosen his interests over those of the most powerful man in the world. He had just chosen Jacob over Pharaoh.
This choice that faced Joseph, in truth, was not just a choice between loyalty to Father and loyalty to a generic, powerful benefactor. It was, in fact, a much more emotionally wrenching choice for Joseph. It was really a choice between two fathers.
For who, really, was Pharaoh to Joseph? Joseph, remember, had been kidnapped and sold off as a slave to Egypt when he was a mere 17 years old. There, in that foreign land, he had languished in prison for many long years until suddenly, a surprise benefactor pulled him out of the dungeon, asking if he perhaps knew how to interpret some dreams. That man was Pharaoh.
After Joseph successfully interpreted those dreams, not only did Pharaoh make Joseph’s life dramatically better than it had been before – he made it better in certain, crucial ways. He gave him a wife. He gave him a new name. He gave him a job. What kind of person helps you find a wife, gives you a name, and can give you a job in the family business? A father does those things for you.
And speaking of father, let’s talk about how Pharaoh first gets to know Joseph. What was their topic of conversation? Could you interpret my dreams please? What was the last topic of conversation Joseph discussed with his own father? It was his own dreams and their meaning. Jacob had angrily denounced the implication of Joseph’s dreams about the sun and moon and stars bowing to him. It seemed as if Joseph was thinking he would have a kind of ultimate power. But now, a new kind of father would come on the scene and, in another conversation about dreams, that new father would be so enthralled with Joseph that he would in fact gift him the very power that Joseph had once dreamed about. He would make Joseph second in charge to the most powerful person in the world.
Second in charge…. Hmm, we’ve heard that before, haven’t we?
Yes, Joseph occupied the same position in Pharaoh’s household that he had occupied at home. He was second in charge to the ultimate power. At home, that man on top had been his father. Now, in Egypt, that man was Pharaoh.
It seems like Joseph really did have a father-son relationship going with Pharaoh. Which is all fine and well. Except that Joseph, of course, has a real father, too. And eventually, that real father, Jacob, shows up in Egypt, and re-enters Joseph’s life. So, for Joseph, everything is fine as long as the interests of those two men – those two fathers – Jacob and Pharaoh, aligned with one another. But what would happen if they ever didn’t?
Now is that time. That discussion that Jacob had with Joseph is the moment when Pharaoh’s and Jacob’s interests diverge. There’s just no way to make both men happy anymore. When Joseph is with Pharaoh he can treat him like a father. When he’s with Jacob, he can treat him like a father. But now both these men want different things and to honor one may be to seem disloyal to the other. What now?
Now, we understand why it took Jacob seventeen years of living in Egypt to realize that Joseph was ‘righteous,’ – to realize that Joseph was a completely loyal son. Because Jacob knew the risks Joseph would take by even bringing up the idea of burial in Canaan with Pharaoh. Trying to honor that request could come at a real price for Joseph; his loyalty to Pharaoh, and to Egypt, could be questioned. When Joseph swore that he would bury Jacob in Canaan, Jacob understood what that meant. Joseph accepted the risk. In a contest of loyalty between Jacob and Pharaoh, Joseph had just chosen Jacob.
Still, it is one thing to make a promise and another thing to carry it out. How, in practice, did Joseph manage to actually approach Pharaoh with news of the state funeral that would have to be held in Canaan? And how, in the end, did Pharaoh respond to that outrageous request? The answer to these questions reveal that it wasn’t just Joseph who acted honorably and heroically in the affair of Jacob’s funeral. Heroism also came from other unexpected quarters, as well...
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