Sunday, January 08, 2012

Vayehi (Wanderings)

“Do Not Bury Me in Egypt!”

This time, I would like to explore and try to understand one detail of this week’s parashah: the meaning of burial and the place of burial. I noticed a striking fact: Parashat Vayehi is framed, at its beginning and its end, by two closely parallel, otherwise unique incidents. In Genesis 47:29-31, Yaakov calls to his son Yosef and makes him swear an oath that he will not bury him in Egypt, but will remove his body and bury him with his parents and his kin, in the land of Canaan. At the very end of the parashah, which is devoted almost entirely to various events surrounding that death—Yaakov’s calling especially to the sons of Yosef, the blessings of the twelve sons, his death, embalming, and the funeral procession in which he is indeed taken up to the cave of Makhpelah in Hevron—after the family returns to Egypt and several years pass, the time comes for Yosef to die (interestingly, he thereby predeceases all of his brothers, despite being nearly the youngest). At this point (50:24-25), Yosef prophecies that God will remember them (Elohim pakod yifkod etkhem) and will take them up out of this land and take them to the land which He has sworn to give to their fathers. He makes them take an oath that, when that happens (and here he repeats the formula pakod yifkod etkhem), they will take his bones with them—as they indeed do (see Exod 13:19; Josh 24:32). Incidentally, this very phrase serves as one of the signs confirming Moses’ authenticity: God tells him, at the burning bush, to use these words to announce his redemptive mission—Exod 3:16 (cf. 4:31; 13:19).

What does all this tell us? What does it mean? It is interesting that Yaakov does not specifically command his children to bring his bones to the Promised Land, as Yosef does; on the other hand, the reinterment of Yosef, specifically, is somehow seen as a visible sign of the deliverance from Egypt. It is also interesting that nowhere else in all the 24 books of Tanakh do we have anyone adjuring others to bury him in a specific place and not bury him at another.

Two ideas occurred to me in this context. The first is, of course, the importance of place, in the sense that the place of burial indicates the place to which the person attaches ultimate significance in his life. Burial is a symbolic act of singular importance in human life, marking as it does its conclusion. The body was the vessel for the person’s life, for his soul, so that even when life departs it is not treated in a purely functional manner, as an object, but in some sense continues to embody, if one may put it thus, the meaning of that life—first and foremost through its location, through where and with whom it is buried.

Yaakov clearly felt himself a sojourner, an exile in Egypt. But even Yosef, who spent his entire adult life in Egypt, made it clear, through this simple request not to be buried in the land of Egypt as soon as he could be removed, that he too saw himself as no more than a sojourner, an exile in that land: his real roots were in the land of his forefathers. It is common, in our own day, for Jews who lived abroad to ask to be buried in the land of Israel—and their families, typically, respect that wish. It is easy to make fun of this posthumous Zionism of those who lived their entire lives in the comforts of Diaspora, but the sentiment it expresses is real: that this is their true home, that had life developed differently they would have gladly lived here as well. On another level, the rëinterment of Theodor Herzl in Israel, shortly after the establishment of the State, was an important symbolic statement for the Zionist movement, that this founding figure had been reunited with the land he did so much to rebuild.

A second observation prompted by the parashah has to do with father-son relationships. The Bible as a whole, does not tell us much of human relations. Genesis is of course rich in human stories, in vivid portraits of individuals and families and their interrelationships, but it is unique in this respect. The remaining four books of the Torah are a mixture of law, exhortation, and a record of the three-corner relationship among the people of Israel, God, and Moses—something else again. The other two sections of Tanakh—Nevii’m and Ketuvim—are filled with prophecy, history, poetry, and “wisdom,” but there are only a handful of books which, among other things, tell the stories of people and their lives as such: Judges, 1-2 Samuel, to a lesser extent, 1-2 Kings, Ruth, Esther, and possibly Jonah—and that’s about it.

I once read an essay about American literature—probably by Lionel Trilling, I’m no longer sure—in which the author speaks of the greatest theme of literature generally, and 19th and early-20th century American literature in particular (especially the Bildungsroman) —as being that of fathers and sons and the difficulties of their relationship—the young man’s struggle for identity or separation from the paternal home, the process of “self-discovery,” and the eventual coming full turn to a more mature acceptance of the father. (Thus, for example, the final scene of the movie East of Eden, in which the James Dean character takes care of his dying father with true devoted; albeit that film was made 50 years ago; I wonder if that ending would go over today).

By contrast, the central theme in much of modern writing as well as movies, TV shows, etc., is romantic love—the relationship of man and woman relations. Even though children are born of the love of man and woman, that is only rarely the theme of such literature. Rather, the focus is on the relationship itself as an end, a kind of eternal present without continuity, without any sense of building something larger—love and sexuality as a source of pleasure and fulfillment in themselves.

would call these two types “vertical” and “horizontal,” respectively. In the human narratives in the Bible, the focus is overwhelmingly on the vertical, inter-generational drama. We have there mostly men’s interactions with one another as fathers and sons, or as brothers; or women as mother & daughter, as sisters, as mother-in-law and daughter-in-law (Ruth), or as a mother nurturing young child. There is no real developed portrait of the romantic love relationship. Even Song of Songs is a lyrical portrayal of love, not a narrative of a real relationship between fleshed-out characters. It seems to me that our generation has much to learn from this approach.


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