The significance that this week’s parshah, Vayechi,is bookended by two deaths, those of Jacob and Joseph, is both unavoidable and undeniable. But the events concerning the burial of both patriarchs, and the emphasis on their skeletal remains are both enigmatic and intriguing. Both men make their successors swear to lay their bones to rest in the land of Israel, and these promises are ultimately fulfilled.So, what significance can be found in the return of Jacob and Joseph’s bones to the land of Israel?
Perhaps the answer might be found in an interesting alliteration. The Torah is written without nikkudim, the vowel pointing that often helps us to distinguish between similar words. The absence of nikkudim can make for some interesting, and evocative wordplay when reading the text. When the text of the Torah is not vocalized, the word for bones (atzamot) can also be read as essence (atzmut).Also the word for independence (atzma’ut) is derived from the root word for bone (etzem). So the removing of Joseph and Jacob’s bones might be read as a liberation of both their bodies and their spirits, from Egypt. This is of course consistent with the Jewish holistic understanding body, soul and spirit. A liberated body without spirit is only a corpse, while a liberated spirit without body is simply a ghost. Only together, bones and essence, body and soul is liberation of the full human being achieved.
It is also worth noting that the word for Egypt (mitzrayim) is derived from the Hebrew word for narrow (tzar) and in the Jewish mystical tradition is thought to refer to the narrowness or limitations of Israel’s and by association the entire human potential. The contrast between Egyptian and Hebrew burial practices serves to highlight this. In Egypt, as the Torah explicitly points out, the dead are embalmed, mummified and placed in a coffin or sarcophagus to be preserved.(Genesis 50:2) Egypt was a society of narrowness, of restriction and oppression, of slavery, death and abuse. So too, Egypt’s burial practice was one of restriction, sealing off, preservation and narrowness.
By contrast, in a Jewish burial, the body must be free to return to the ground. The body is washed and prepared for burial, wrapped in a loose shroud, and never embalmed. When a coffin is used, it must allow for the decomposition of the body into the earth, and the boundaries of the coffin must not be preserved over time. Jews are buried in wooden coffins that will decompose, rather than metal coffins, and holes are drilled in the coffin to expose the body to the surrounding earth. This is especially true in Israel, the final burial place of both Jacob and Joseph, where the beloved’s body is returned to the ground without a coffin, wrapped only in a simple white shroud. Here, the bones and essence of a person are not confined, but liberated to return to the source from whence they came. By contrast the Egyptians tried to preserve the lifeless body within the confines of their limited memories. It is in these two societies’ treatment of bones (atzamot) that their essence (atzmut) is revealed. The narrowness of Mitzrayim is contrasted with the openness, liberation and transformation of Israel.
According to the midrashic tradition the Egyptian sorcerer’s had rightly prophesied that when Joseph’s bones left Egypt the treasurers of Egypt would leave with them. So Joseph was placed in a metal coffin and sunk to the bottom of the Nile River to rest among a myriad of other bodies. When the time came for Israel to leave Egypt, Moses went and stood on the bank of the Nile and exclaimed, -“Joseph, Joseph! The time has arrived which the Holy One, blessed be He swore, – I will deliver you, and the oath which you imposed upon the Israelite has reached the time of fulfillment.” According to this legend Joseph’s coffin then floated to the surface of the water. (Sota 13a). Before his own death Joseph had insisted that his brothers vow that when God would eventually remove the Children of Israel from Egypt, “you must remove my bones up out of here.” (Genesis 50:25) Joseph believed in the promises of God and did not want to be left behind. Even in death, and some 400 years later, Joseph knew that having his remains returned to the soil of promise was more than a symbolic gesture; rather it was a concrete act of faith in the God of Israel’s deliverance of His children. (Hebrews 11:22)