Parshas Vayechi: The Life Giving Circle of Chessed
In this week’s parsha, Parshas Vayechi, the book of Bereishis comes to a close, as Yaakov and his family have settled in Goshen, Egypt, with Yosef the viceroy as the provider of life.
Prior to his death, at the age of one hundred and forty-seven, Yaakov dispenses unique blessings to each of his sons. And with his last dying wish to be buried in the land of Canaan, in the Me’aras Ha’Machpela, Yaakov was “brought into his people” (Bereishis 49:29-33).
Fulfilling their father’s last request, Yosef and his brothers ascend to Canaan to bury Yaakov, promptly returning to Egypt after Yaakov has been laid to rest.
And at the end of his own life, Yosef wishes – as did his father before him – to merit eternal rest in the Holy Land. However, it would not be immediate, as was Yaakov’s burial. Yosef’s eternal rest in Shechem would come after many years… hundreds of years…
And G-d will surely redeem you, Yosef assured his brothers, and He will take you out of this land, to the Land He swore to give to Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. And when that great day of redemption comes, Yosef made the Children of Israel swear, וְהַעֲלִתֶם אֶת-עַצְמֹתַי מִזֶּה – take my bones out of here (50:24-26).
Do not leave me here, in Egypt, in the Nile, in a coffin in Mitzrayim. This is not, never was, and will not forever be, my place.
R’ Soloveitchik zt’l teaches, “The viceroy of Egypt, the ruler who by his smallest gesture had the power to judge his brothers for life or death, before whom the brothers begged for their own lives as they pledged eternal subjugation to him, now makes an amazing request. The all-powerful Yosef was utterly powerless to accomplish the one objective that mattered most: to assume his place among the tribes of Israel, to have his name etched beside that of his brothers on the breast-plate of the Kohen Gadol (High Priest). To achieve this goal, Yosef had to be buried in the land of Israel.
“…Why did Yosef not assign his two sons, Menashe and Ephraim, the task of his interment? The answer is that Yosef was not only concerned about his final resting place, but about his very legacy. He was torn from his family, estranged in Egyptian exile for so long that he required a spiritual realignment with the rest of the Children of Israel.
“To accomplish this realignment, Yosef had to repair the breach in the relationship with his brothers, a relationship that had been strained since childhood. He somehow had to inculcate love and respect where previously there had been distrust and fear. His legacy had to be redefined and redeemed, with acknowledgment by his brothers and their descendants of his pivotal role in the continuity of the Jewish nation.
“There is a subtle double meaning in Yosef’s request, וְהַעֲלִתֶם אֶת-עַצְמֹתַי מִזֶּה, and you shall take up my bones: the removal of my remains from Egypt should ‘elevate’ (וְהַעֲלִתֶם) my standing from estrangement to an integral constituent of the tribes of Israel.
“In this way, the antithesis of Yosef’s dreams to pass. Yosef figuratively prostrated himself before his own brothers as he begged them to fulfill his dying request. He was now utterly dependent on his brothers to attain his own redemption” (Chumash Masores HaRav, Bereishis, p.372-373).
From Yaakov and Yosef’s last requests of others – do not bury me in Mitzrayim, but take me up for eternal rest in the Holy Land – we learn a fundamental lesson. Even the most holy, most powerful and most revered of men, in death, are utterly dependent on others.
Yosef, the one who ruled the entire ancient Middle East, the most powerful man in the world, was helpless to help himself fulfill his last request.
R’ Aharon Leib Shteinman zt’l showed his students and grandchildren what R’ Chaim of Volozhin wrote at the end of his introduction to the Gra (Gaon of Vilna, d.1797) on Zera’im: “The zechus of Torah and righteousness of the Gra should be of benefit to all of Klal Yisrael, and particularly those who study his sefarim.”
Even the Vilna Gaon, R’ Shteinman pointed out, who reached the highest standard of kedusha and taharah (holiness and purity) possible, and definitely attained the uppermost level of Gan Eden, had kaddish recited for him by his children for the year following his petirah. Each kaddish his children said, every mitzvah they did, was an additional merit for their father’s soul.
Every morning before davening, R’ Aharon Leib reached into his pocket, took out a few shekels and dropped them into the pushka. He then verbally declared that he was giving tzedakah in memory of his father, mother, brother, sister and as a zechus for all six million kedoshim murdered in the Holocaust.
R’ Aharon Leib explained that it may seem trivial to someone in this world, to give a few shekels to tzedaka in their merit, but for the neshama of the deceased person, being the beneficiary of even a sliver of a mitzvah is greatly appreciated. Giving tzedaka is one way to elevate their neshamos; another is learning Torah in their zechus (Reb Aharon Leib, Artscroll, p.272-274).
No matter how powerful or revered any man is in life, in death, he cannot accomplish anything without the benevolence of others. Yaakov relied on his sons to bury him in the Me’aras Ha’Machpela, and Yosef made his brothers swear that he would not be left in Egypt for eternity.
Hence, the circle of chessed upon which our nation is built is not bound by the constraints of time and the passage of the years. In life, we strive to help each other as best we can. And in death, we realize that it is now the neshamos of others who need our assistance.
A Jew is never independent, always relying upon Hashem as well as upon the kindness of others. May we merit to be givers, always striving to do for others. And when the time comes, may we pray that others will do for us in return.
בברכת בשורות טובות ושבת שלום,