BURY ME NOT – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon – Va-y’khi – Gen.47:28-50:26
Remember this one?
Oh bury me not on the lone prairie,
These words come low and mournfully
From the pallid lips of a youth who lay
On his dyin’ bed at the close of day….
By my father’s grave oh let me be
And bury me not on the lone prairie.
That sad young cowboy had good company. None other than the patriarch Jacob. In this week’s Torah reading, he calls in his favorite son Joseph and makes him swear not to bury his father in Egypt. His last request is to be buried in the Cave of Machpelah where his parents and his wife Leah lie. Like so many other mortals facing the end of life, he wants to go home.
Our commentators cite a few other reasons not to bury Jacob in Egypt, not even in a pyramid. After his years in Egypt, Jacob evidently became well respected, and might rate a distinguished tomb. But he does not want one, not there. Rashi and the Klee Yokor detail three factors behind this oath that Jacob requires of Joseph. One concerns lice, which inhabit Egyptian soil and would attack the body. Worms are bad enough, but lice?? (Actually tradition states that there were seven people whose bodies the worms could not devour, and Jacob was one of them. No word about lice.) A second one concerns the Egyptian custom of gathering at the tomb of an honored man and conducting pagan worship. Jacob’s grave should not prompt idolatry. And the third consideration is the tradition that when the Messiah comes, those buried outside the Land of Israel will have to roll underground all the way there to be revived. All things considered, Jacob says “take me out of Egypt, let me lie with my fathers, and bury me in their burying-place.”
So Joseph does. And the rest of Jacob’s family goes with him – the entire people. When they stop in Atad, east of the Jordan en route to Machpelah, they observe seven days of deep mourning, the same week of shiv’a that Jewish families still sit, although now we do so after the burial. When Jacob’s family does it, the local population sees them and concludes that this must be a very sad day for Egypt. Actually we read here that Egypt mourned Jacob for 70 days. Flags at half-staff perhaps?
Maybe something more. Jacob, who immigrated there at Joseph’s call to save his family from starvation, then set an example of a noble patriarch, and inspired Egypt’s respect. As other outstanding characters, from Martin Luther King to Mahatma Gandhi and now to Nelson Mandela, leave a memory that all human beings can honor, so Egypt could honor Jacob.