The beginning and end of this week’s Parsha relate the deaths of two great figures, Yaakov Avinu and his son Yosef. Yaakov asked Yosef to swear that he would bury him in not Egypt, but rather with his forefathers, in Me’arat HaMachpeilah. To that request, Yosef responded, “Anochi E’eseh ChiDvarecha,” “I will act according to your words” (47:30).
The simple explanation of Yosef’s response is he promised to bury his father in Eretz Yisrael, as Yaakov requested. However, Rabbenu Bechaya (as well as other later Darshanim) quotes a Midrash that claims that Yosef was making a commitment to follow in his father’s footsteps, a promise that he would eventually ask his own family to bury him in Israel as well. According to this notion, Yosef modeled his own request for burial in Eretz Yisrael, which he made of Bnei Yisrael immediately before his own death, after his father’s request (see 50:24).
When comparing the two requests for burial in Eretz Yisrael, an important difference stands out. Yaakov requested that he not be buried in Egypt at all, but rather with his forefathers in Eretz Yisrael. Yosef merely asked to be taken up to Eretz Yisrael when God “[would] remember” B’nai Yisrael and take them to Eretz Yisrael. In contrast to his father, he does not seem to resist temporary burial in Egypt, requesting only that he eventually be permanently interred in Eretz Yisrael. How can we understand this difference?
A simple answer may be that Yosef’s stature in Egyptian politics may not have allowed for him to be immediately moved out of Egypt. That would have been too great an affront to Egypt and her leadership, and would have been politically unrealistic. Instead, Yosef made of his family the more realistic request that they eventually move him to Eretz Yisrael.
I would like to offer two other approaches. The first is based on an interesting insight the Parshanim share about Yaakov’s intention in requesting burial in Eretz Yisrael. Parshat Vayigash ended on an ominous note, telling us that Yaakov’s family had fully settled in Egypt (“Vayei’achazu Bah,” “they became entrenched in it”) and begun to flourish there (47:27). In light of the Jewish people’s increasing comfort with being in Galut, Yaakov’s demand that he not be buried there but in Eretz Yisrael seems quite powerful. He was stating unequivocally that Eretz Yisrael is their only permanent home.
Presumably, B’nai Yisrael were even more entrenched in Egypt over fifty years later when Yosef died, and his message to B’nai Yisrael had to be tempered for his times. Perhaps he knew that God intended for the nation to remain in Egypt for the “long haul,” so moving his body to Eretz Yisrael would not have been appropriate. Or perhaps B’nai Yisrael of his time would not have been as receptive to the dramatic type of statement Yaakov had made, and were able to digest only the softer message of Yosef’s request.
While discussing this issue in a recent Chumash class at TABC, Ben Friedman suggested a more novel approach. He argued that if Yosef had been moved right away, B’nai Yisrael might have forgotten about him and his message over the years. But by staying with his people in Egypt, the unfinished business of eventually moving him to Eretz Yisrael would keep the message of Yosef’s request fresh in every generation’s mind. Knowing that they still needed to move Yosef would remind each generation in Egypt – and through this story, every one since – that their only permanent homeland was Eretz Yisrael.