On Saturday 2 January we read the last chapter of Genesis. With the start of the secular new year in really tough circumstances, it seems a good time to repeat the formula for ending a book: be strong, be strong, and let us strengthen one another.
Chapter 50 covers the deaths of both Jacob and Joseph. Both of them, dying in Egypt, express a strong wish to be buried in Canaan. Specifically they want to be buried in Abraham’s cave at Machpelah, along with Abraham, Sarah and Isaac, the only piece of land that Abraham actually owned in the promised land. But it’s not just about location, it’s also the wish to have a funeral according to their own customs, a Jewish funeral, in a sense. But in order to achieve this, the practicality of transporting a body back to Canaan, they have to make use of Egyptian technology and follow the Egyptian custom of mummification.
A big debate in the interpretation of the last few chapters of Genesis is just how much Jacob and the Israelites were really integrated into Egyptian life. There are traditions that they kept themselves apart in some way. For example the idea Orna taught last week, that the name ‘Goshen’ is related to the title of the parshe, Vayigash, suggesting that the Israelites approached Egyptian culture but did not fully connect to it. There’s also the explanation of why we bless our sons in the name of Ephraim and Menasseh: that these two sons of Joseph kept their Jewish identity while living in Egypt. That’s only one explanation, there are others that take a different view. Looking at what we know of the plain facts of the story recorded in Genesis, perhaps Jacob and his immediate family did kept themselves apart, but what about their children and grandchildren who were either born in Egypt or were very young when they arrived, who knew no other life? They must have absorbed Egyptian culture to some extent even if they kept their religion. As for Joseph himself, he lived most of his adult life as Pharaoh’s second-in-command, part of the Egyptian court, married to the daughter of an Egyptian priest.
Whatever their relationship to life in Egypt, when it came to their death it was essential to be buried in Canaan according to their own ancestral customs. It’s interesting to see that not only was Jacob embalmed as a mummy in Egyptian style, his funeral procession was accompanied by a large crowd from the Egyptian court and the army, to the extent that the place where the procession rested was known as Abel-Mizraim, the mourning of Egypt.
For Joseph this dying request to be buried in Canaan, according to Israelite or Jewish customs, becomes far more difficult. Because after Joseph’s death we learn of a new Pharoah who “didn’t know Joseph”, didn’t remember the favoured position that Joseph and his family had held in the court, and oppressed and enslaved the Israelites for 400 years. So it was many centuries before Joseph’s bones could be returned to Canaan in accordance with his request. By then there was nobody left alive who would have known him personally, his sons and grandsons were long dead. Apart from perhaps his niece Serach, the daughter of his brother Asher. She is mentioned both in the list of the family who arrive in Egypt with Jacob, and with those who leave Egypt with Moses, resulting in a tradition that she was immortal, and she was the one who remembered where Joseph’s mummy was so that his request to be returned to Canaan could be carried out. Even in the chaos of the Exodus from Egypt, even after all those generations of slavery, he was eventually brought back to his home to have the funeral he wanted.
I was particularly struck by Joseph’s delayed funeral this year, when we’ve had 9 months without proper funerals. I’d like to read an account by R’ Jonah Geffen, an American rabbi, from back in April near the start of the pandemic, of burying a congregant alone, without a minyan, without most of the usual traditions: So today I officiated my first funeral in the time of social distancing.
Since then we’ve adapted to our new, distanced reality. We’ve managed somehow, we’ve reinvented our rituals out of necessity. Sometimes we’ve been able to have a graveside minyan at least, depending on the exact lockdown laws in a particular region or at a particular moment. But no tahara to purify bodies, no shemirah, no-one watching over the bodies until burial. And no shiva, no memorial prayers in the homes of the mourners. Fiona and the ritual committee have gone to huge efforts to hold the most meaningful funerals possible in these conditions. And the welfare group and many others have done the absolute best they can to reach out to people who need them, to provide comfort. Like the Israelites making use of Egyptian technology like mummification and partially borrowing Egyptian customs to make their own Jewish customs possible, we’ve used secular technology like Zoom, we’ve conformed our funerals to restrictions designed with Christian burial customs in mind, we’ve said Kaddish in situations that may or may not be strictly valid.
We may cautiously hope for “normal” stone settings some time this year, for at least most of the people we lost during 2020 and who barely had a funeral. And if we don’t manage it this year then it will surely be sooner than the 400 years that Joseph’s family had to wait to bury him properly. But we’ll never get back those funerals we missed. We’ll never get to say goodbye to our dear ones with the funeral that we and our tradition expects. And we’ll never get back the ability to give our bereaved friends a hug at just the time when they most need it.
I want to finish on a somewhat more positive note, so I’ll return to the parshe. In v 20, when Joseph forgives his brothers for their cruel treatment of him when they sold him into slavery, he says: “Although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about … the survival of many people”. Now of course the virus itself doesn’t have any malicious intent, but some of the political decisions we’ve had to live with could be seen as intending harm. The dithering until it’s too late, the futile attempt to somehow bolster business and make money at the expense of people’s lives, the corruption wasting unbelievable amounts of money and still not providing adequate medical equipment or the right infrastructure to respond to the pandemic. But even the social distancing restrictions imposed for good public health reasons have been painful and difficult, have kept us apart from each other, from being together as a community. And have prevented us from carrying out some of our most important mitzvot, being with people in the last moments of their lives, and the ultimate kindness, chesed v’emet, of a proper Jewish burial. And yet, it has been “to bring about the survival of many people”. It’s impossible to know how many lives we’ve saved by doing the right thing, by staying apart however much it hurts, by making almost unthinkable compromises in our ritual lives, but we can be sure that we are playing our part in something that God intends for good.