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This commentary is provided by special arrangement with American Jewish World Service. To learn more, visit www.ajws.org.
Our parashah, Vayehi, is bookended by two deaths, those of Jacob and Joseph. Both men make their successors swear to lay their bones to rest in the land of Israel, and these promises are ultimately fulfilled. What is the significance of this return of Jacob and Joseph’s bones to the land of Israel? Our answer is found in the un-vocalized text of the Torah, where bones (atzamot) can also be read as essence (atzmut). That is, the taking up of Joseph and Jacob’s bones is, in fact, a liberation of their essences from the bondage of Egypt.
Comparing Egyptian and Jewish burial practices illustrates the vast cultural differences between the two societies. 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). As illustrated by the Hebrew word for Egypt (Mitzrayim), which is connected to the root word tzar, meaning narrow, 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.
In contrast, in a Jewish burial, the body must be free to return to the ground. 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. 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.
Body & Spirit
The exodus of Jacob and Joseph’s bones and essence, then, represents the entire process of liberation from Egypt. It precisely demonstrates the importance of the dual liberation of both body (atzamot) and spirit (atzmut), and the movement from narrowness to expansive liberation.
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