The articles in this column are transcriptions and adaptations of shiurim by Rav Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, zt”l. The Rav’s unique perspective on Chumash permeated many of the shiurim and lectures he presented at various venues over a 40-plus-year period. His words add an important perspective that makes the Chumash in particular, and our tradition in general, vibrant and relevant to our generation.
Jacob administered an oath to his son Joseph that he must bury his father in the Land of Israel. Why did Jacob require Joseph to take an oath to bury him in Canaan? The classical answer is that Jacob knew the oath would blunt any attempt by Pharaoh to prevent the transfer of Jacob’s remains to the Land of Israel. The oath would provide an alibi for Joseph and enable him to fulfill his father’s wishes.
To fully understand this story, we must read between the lines. As Egyptian Viceroy, Joseph attained the highest political level in Egypt. Pharaoh himself demonstrated his trust in Joseph and admiration for his intellect when he instructed the starving Egyptians to turn to Joseph for food and do whatever he required of them. If Joseph was at such a high level with virtually unlimited power, why did Jacob feel the need for Joseph to take an oath? Surely he had the ability to fulfill his father’s wish to be buried in Israel without an oath. Also, Pharaoh had great respect for Jacob and Joseph’s family. He commanded Joseph to inform his family that Egypt was open before them and to settle in the finest parts of the land. Pharaoh was pre-disposed to looking favorably at Joseph and his family. Why did Jacob and Joseph feel the need to apply pressure to Pharaoh to force him to accede to Jacob’s burial in Canaan?
The Rav answered these questions by telling the story of Edmund Rothschild, the well-known philanthropist who passed away around the time of the 1948 War of Independence. He expressed a desire to be buried in Israel, but because of the war his remains could not be transported to the Holy Land and he was interred in France. When conditions permitted interment in Israel, his children requested permission from the interior ministry to exhume his remains and send them to Israel. After some time passed without a reply, they inquired and were told that President De Gaulle himself was holding up their request. They wondered why De Gaulle would be interested in this matter.
When asked, De Gaulle responded that he was troubled by the request. He had always thought of Rothschild as a French citizen first and foremost. A French citizen is defined as a person who is born, lives, dies and is buried on French soil. He could not understand why Rothschild would want his remains removed to non-French soil. Such a request would imply that he was not a true French citizen. Eventually De Gaulle gave in and allowed the exhumation and removal to the Land of Israel; however his opinion of the family Rothschild as loyal French citizens was changed.
This was Joseph’s dilemma. He had spent so many years as the Egyptian Viceroy. Joseph was considered Egyptian to the core by Pharaoh and all of Egypt. One could well imagine, that Joseph had his enemies and detractors in Pharaoh’s court who were constantly insinuating he was not a loyal Egyptian. Pharaoh believed in Joseph and disregarded those anti-Joseph voices. However, by requesting on his own that his father be buried outside of Egypt, Pharaoh might begin to doubt Joseph’s loyalty to Egypt. How could Joseph, the most powerful person in Egypt after Pharaoh, prefer to have his father buried in a foreign land, especially after Egypt and her people were so accepting of him and his family in time of need? Perhaps Joseph considered Egypt as simply another country that he passed through and he still considered a foreign land, Canaan, his true home. Joseph feared that Pharaoh might regret and reconsider his decision to grant him so much power.