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By Rabbi Dr. Meir Tamari | Series: | Level:

Yaakov and his sons came down to Egypt to dwell there ‘lagur sham’, so he knew that rather than return to Eretz Yisrael immediately after the famine was over, he would die there. Therefore, after 17 years of being in Egypt, feeling his age but before being ill, he obligated Yosef not to bury him there but in Hevron, in Ma’arat Hamachpeilah. In this, he taught us and our descendants an important lesson. We should not delay making our wills and testaments until we are ill since then, being frail, in pain and troubled by our disease, we will not have the clarity and wisdom to make logical and intelligent arrangements.

Why were he, Yosef and countless Jews throughout the generations so determined to be buried in Eretz Yisrael, that they obligated others to undertake the expense and trouble to bury them there? Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi taught that since Eretz Yisrael is Eretz Hachayim, they wished thereby to fulfill “I will walk before Hashrem in the land of the living”, even if they were unable to do so before their deaths. However, Rabbi Yochanan questioned this on the basis that not having gone and lived there in kedusha while alive, they now wished to contaminate the Holy Land with the tummah of their dead bodies. The 2 sages were referring to two different types of people. The first is referring to those who lived lives of sanctity and to whom the materialism and pleasures of life were merely vanities while they busied themselves with learning and keeping Torah. Such people indeed saw walking before Hashem as their sole purpose and therefore they truly yearned for the holiness of Eretz Yisrael. Rabbi Yochan was referring to people who concentrated on living lives of dissipation and pleasure with no regard for the things of the spirit and heaven. Their burial in the Holy Land really brought tummat met to that sanctity.

We notice how careful Yaakov is to enunciate the burial spot; “to lie with my fathers and bury me in their burying place” (Ber. 47 30). This was to forestall any arguments by the people of Hevron that they were opposed to people having a private burial ground there or that the sale had been made long ago and they were not obligated by it. However, that sale had been fuly paid for, publicly witnessed and even acted upon later by the burial of Avraham and later of Rivka, Yitzchak and Leah. In addition, the descendants of Ishmael, although being also from Avraham, could not object since Yitzchak and not their ancestor was buried there nor could the children of Eisav since Yaakov had already buried Leah there.

He sought to obligate Yosef rather than any of the other sons not because he was the Viceroy of Egypt and therefore he alone had the power to do so (Rashi), nor because Yosef had brought Yaakov down from Canaan and was the main purpose of his coming to Egypt so that it was only right that he have responsibility for his burial in Canaan (Midrash). Yaakov saw with Ruach Hakodesh that Yosef would be buried in Egypt and his bones taken out for burial in Eretz Yisrael only after the Exodus. Therefore, being frightened that Yosef would think it was correct to leave Yaakov’s bones there as well until then, he wanted to obligate him to do so immediately after Yaakov’s death. The obligation of Yosef is grounded by Yaakov in the 2 terms ‘chesed ve emet’; as a powerful viceroy he is asked to do Yaakov only a chesed but as a son he is required to meet the request as an act of emet to a father.

It is difficult to see the source from where Yaakov decided to make 2 separate tribes that is the prerogative of the first born, from Yosef’s 2 sons and make the younger Ephraim take precedence. Since he knew that Reuven had forfeited the rights of ‘peter rechem’ it was logical that they should devolve on Yosef who was the only other one of the sons of the Matriarchs to be a bechor. Logic apart, he had a revelation to that effect as he reveals to Yosef when he tells him that: “G-d Almighty blessed me [threefold] and said, Behold I will make you fruitful, and multiply you and will make of you a multitude of peoples” (Ber. 48:3-4). The promise of the Land in that same verse was intended for future generations whereas this threefold promise of sons referred to Yaakov himself. Since only Binyamin was born after that, the promise could only refer to grandsons. It was known that the Abrahamic promise was intended for 12 tribes. Now Yaakov foresaw that Levi would not be included with them for the realization of that promise, therefore this presumed the addition of 2 tribes. One would come naturally from Yosef through Menashe and that left another to come from him, namely Ephraim. This was to the credit and honor of Yosef since it included 2 portions of the Land, 2 Tribal signs and 2 tribal flags. Furthermore, when Yaakov said that Ephraim and Menashe would be to him as Reuven and Shimon, this referred to the fact that in the repeated musterings in the desert and in the allocation of tribal inheritance, we find that these two tribes outnumber Reuven and Shimon. It was from the same verse that Yaakov knew that Ephraim was to take precedence over Menashe. Yosef named his son Ephraim since, “Hashem has made me fruitful- ‘hifrani’ and that word fruitful was at the head of Hashem’s promise to him. We can also deduce this from Yaakov’s remarks about Rachel’s death, “But a little way from Ephrat and I buried her there in the way of Ephrat”, that name coming from the root Pru which is part of Ephraim’s name.

Yaakov made the future promise to Yosef’s sons in private and then called all the tribes to “Gather that I may tell you what will befall you in the last days. …hearken to Yisrael your father” (Ber. 49:1-2). Yaakov’s purpose was to lay out the special characteristics of each son and so to determine which of them was suitable and fit to provide the future kingship of Israel. The phrasing denotes that they were to hear from him both the future of each tribe as well as a rebuke for those who deserved it. [We note that such rebuke was missing from Moshe’s blessing of the Tribes]. Reuven, Shimon and Levi were rebuked, thus foretelling the future history of their descendants, none of whom were to be the kings of the future, as they lacked some of the essential characteristics needed for royalty. For instance, Reuven was tempestuous, took hasty decisions and lacked self control. This was shown in the affair of Bilhah and remained with his descendants as is shown in their decision to settle in Tran- Jordan, despite the detriment of separation both from the rest of Israel and the sanctity of the Land. In contrast Yehudah and Yosef had all the requirements of character, wisdom and leader ship needed for the kingship they bequeathed to their descendants.

Text Copyright © 2004 by Rabbi Meir Tamari and

D r. Tamari is a renowned economist, Jewish scholar, and founder of the Center For Business Ethics ( in Jerusalem.