By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
“And when the days of mourning for Jacob were over, Joseph spoke to the house of Pharaoh saying, ‘If now I have found favor in your eyes, speak, I pray you, in the ears of Pharaoh, saying, My father made me swear, and he declared: I am dying. In my grave that I have dug for myself in the land of Canaan, there shall you bury me’” (Genesis 50:4-5).
Why does the normally flashy, confident Grand Vizier of Egypt make such a meek request to Pharaoh to bury his father in his family’s ancestral homeland? Does the No. 2 figure in the most powerful nation on Earth, who undoubtedly confers with the king on a daily basis, need an appointment to see the monarch?
Why is he forced to traverse through the usual hierarchy of gatekeepers through whom only junior staﬀ and guests must pass? For that matter, why does the Torah even go to the trouble of reporting the process by which Joseph makes this apologetic petition?
Rabbi Ovadia Seforno (16th century Italy) explains that in this particular instance, court etiquette prevented Joseph from making his request personally of Pharaoh because he was dressed in mourning clothes (and was presumably in need of a haircut and shave). However, Jewish law dictates that whatever one has to do in order to properly bury one’s dead is permissible. Joseph certainly could have made himself presentable had his external appearance posed a problem, especially since his request was to properly bury his father in the Land of Israel.
In contrast, Rabbi David Pardo (18th century Italy, Sarajevo and Jerusalem), author of Maskil l’David, maintains that a careful reading of the verse indicates a change in Joseph’s status. His sudden loss of access could well be a warning of new palace tremors that would eventually erupt into the enslavement of his descendants. Joseph seems to have been demoted.
I would like to suggest another explanation. Perhaps the obsequious manner in which Joseph must arrange to have his request brought before Pharaoh is not to shed light on a change in Joseph’s political position, but rather to emphasize the delicate nature of this particular petition itself. In other words, it serves as a moment of truth for Joseph as well as for Jews of every generation. Permit me to explain.
Joseph has reached the top of the social ladder in Egypt. He speaks Egyptian, dresses as an Egyptian, is referred to by an Egyptian name (Tzafenat-Pane’ach), and is married to a native Egyptian. From slave to prime minister, Joseph has certainly lived out the great Egyptian dream. Now, however, he is forced to face the precariousness and vulnerability of his position.
Ordinarily a person wants to be buried in his own homeland, where his body will become part of the earth to which he feels most deeply connected. Indeed, in the ancient world, the most critical right of citizenship was the right of burial. Jacob wisely understands that Pharaoh expects Joseph to completely identify with Egypt, to bring up generations of faithful and committed Egyptians in return for all that his adopted country has given to him. But this is impossible for Jacob, and the patriarch hopes that it would also be impossible for his children and grandchildren.
True, they were in Egypt, but they were not of Egypt. They might contribute to Egyptian society and the economy, but they could never truly become Egyptians. Jacob understands that his burial in Canaan would be the greatest test of Joseph’s career, and would define the character of his descendants forever. Hence, he makes his sons solemnly swear not to bury him in Egypt.
Joseph, too, understands that Pharaoh would be shocked at the request, a petition expressing the Hebrews’ rejection of the world’s greatest superpower. Indeed, it is such a diﬃcult and sensitive matter that Joseph cannot face his patron, Pharaoh, directly with it.
At that moment, Joseph understands an even deeper truth: Neither he nor his progeny will ever ultimately identify with Egypt. If he, his brothers, his children and grandchildren were to make the choice to live as Jews, with their own concepts of life and death, they would never be accepted and would likely be persecuted. It is this realization in the aftermath of Jacob’s death that can be seen as the beginning of the slavery of the Israelites.
In Egypt, Joseph’s kinsmen may have everything: Goshen Heights and Goshen Green, progeny and patrimony. But as long as they are determined to remain Jews — to live as Jews and to die as Jews — servitude and persecution are never far off. They may rejoice in their preferred Egyptian status, where “they took possession of it and were fruitful and multiplied exceedingly,” but they can never pause to enjoy this good fortune.
The realization upon Jacob’s death of the transient and illusory nature of their good fortune comes upon them inexorably and imperceptibly, as in the blink of an eye. Such is the ultimate fate of the Jewish people in every exile. The roller coaster experience in Egypt, foretelling future exiles, teaches that we have just one true national home, Israel, where we can fully live the ideals of the Torah and serve as a model nation for all the peoples of the earth.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is the chief rabbi of Efrat.