The Holiness of Joseph Protected Jacob and all the Children of Israel
It is written, “Do kindness and truth with me – please do not bury me in Egypt” (Genesis 47:29). Such was the request of Jacob to his son Joseph.
The following questions may be raised:
1. Why did Jacob ask Joseph not to bury him in Egypt? Instead, why did he not ask another of his sons, for they were just as courageous and upright as Joseph was (Shemot Rabba 1:1)? They too could have removed his coffin from Egypt. Since Jacob had to ask such permission from Joseph, the governor of the country, was it forbidden to remove a dead man from Egypt in order to bury him elsewhere?
2. We must also understand why, before he died, Joseph “adjured the Children of Israel, saying: ‘When G-d will indeed remember you, then you must bring my bones up out of here’ ” (Genesis 50:25). This oath would prevent them from leaving Egypt without bringing Joseph’s remains with them. In fact, the Sages say that they also took the remains of the other tribal heads, who themselves had requested the same thing (Bereshith Rabba 100:12). Why is only Joseph’s request recorded in the Torah, not the request of the other brothers?
Concerning the verse that states, “Hurry – go up to my father and say to him, ‘…G-d has made me master of all Egypt’ ” (Genesis 45:9), the Darkei Mussar relates the question posed by the Rabbi of Rozhin: “Does such a position hold any value in the eyes of Jacob?” He replies by stating, “His intention in saying this was to convey the idea that he, Joseph, was the divinely-appointed leader of Egypt.” In other words, Joseph wanted his father to know that he had instilled the fear and knowledge of G-d into Egypt and proclaimed G-d’s sovereignty over its entire empire. Such news was certainly comforting for Jacob, and he would be happy to know that the Egyptians had attained, thanks to Joseph, a knowledge of G-d. The greatness and holiness of Joseph is that he was able to influence the Egyptians to the point that they accepted him as their divinely-appointed ruler. His righteousness was in direct opposition to all the defilement of Egyptian society, and wherever he went he rid the land of impurity to such a degree that the Egyptians easily managed to have faith in G-d.
This is what Joseph told his father: “G-d has made me master of all Egypt. Come down to me; do not delay.” In other words: “Do not fear coming down to Egypt, for I have already prepared the groundwork for the Children of Israel. We have already constructed yeshivot, and the Children of Israel can continue to study here.” Joseph did not go to the land of Canaan himself to get his father, for in that case Jacob would not have allowed his son to return to Egypt, and “Jacob our forefather should by rights have been taken to Egypt in iron chains, but his merit saved him” (Shabbat 89b). Yet at least Joseph consoled his father by telling him that he proclaimed G-d’s Name throughout Egypt, and that there was nothing to fear from the land’s immorality and impurity.
Even though Jacob was convinced of the truth of that message, he sent Judah ahead to prepare a house of study for him (Bereshith Rabba 95:3). This is quite surprising. Joseph had already established places of study, since Manasseh and Ephraim studied Torah. We must therefore ask ourselves why Jacob wanted to set up another place for Torah, and why he was not content with the ones that Joseph had established.
We learn a fundamental principle from this: A man should not be content with the strength that he possesses, but rather he should aspire to increase and improve his service of G-d. In that which concerns Torah, one must not be satisfied with what he has acquired; he must try to deepen his Torah knowledge. That is why, even though Jacob was aware of the existence of Joseph’s yeshivot, he wanted to personally insure that he would be able to study Torah while in Egypt. Joseph had already been there for several years, but Jacob’s other children were only now going down to Egypt with the Torah and fear of G-d that they had acquired in the land of Canaan. They needed a place that responded to their needs.
We can now answer all the questions that we previously raised. It is written, “When the Children of Israel descended into Egypt, the exile had already begun and there was no way to escape from it” (Zohar II:8b). Jacob knew that he could not move his own remains out of Egypt, and that only Joseph – the one who had succeeded to crush impurity under his feet and proclaim the Name of G-d in Egypt – would have the power to remove his body so that the Egyptians would not try to benefit from it in any way. Jacob’s other children did not have the power that Joseph possessed, since his conduct was upright in that defiled place. This is why Jacob asked Joseph to bury him in the land of Canaan “so that the Egyptians do not make an idol of my remains after I die” (Bereshith Rabba 95:6), which would have caused Joseph to lose everything that he had worked for up to that point.
To this we must add that if Jacob had been buried in Egypt, the exodus of the Children of Israel would have been delayed, for after having made Jacob’s body into an idol, the Egyptians would have also mistreated his children and worsened their situation. In that case they would have been unable to purify the sparks of holiness in Egypt (see Ohr HaChayim on Genesis 49:9). For those who understand, it is not necessary to elaborate on this subject.
G-d said to Jacob, “I shall descend with you to Egypt, and I shall also surely bring you up, and Joseph shall place his hand on your eyes” (Genesis 46:4). G-d promised Jacob that he would be buried in Israel (Yerushalmi Sotah 1:10), and Jacob understood that “Joseph shall place his hand on your eyes” meant that only Joseph would bury him in Israel.
Joseph also asked his brothers to take his body out of Egypt. It is written, “The righteous become greater after their death” (Chullin 7b). Just as during his lifetime Joseph (and nobody else) had the power to subjugate the forces of evil, so too after his death, when the Children of Israel departed from Egypt after having repaired the sparks of holiness, did Joseph have a beneficial influence on them. When the Children of Israel were by the Sea of Reeds, the accusing angels protested, “These here [the Egyptians] are idolaters, and these here [the Jews] are idolaters. Why judge them differently?” (Zohar II:170b). Because of the argument presented by Egypt’s ministering angel, the attribute of justice hung over their heads. Already while he was alive, Joseph knew that the sea would not part before the Children of Israel, and that only he could shut the mouth of that accuser and make the sea split, as it is written: “The sea saw and fled” (Psalms 114:3). “What did it see? It saw the coffin of Joseph, who had fled from before Potiphar’s wife” (Shochar Tov ad loc.). Joseph therefore asked his brothers to remove his body from Egypt in order for the sea to split by his merit and so that the Children of Israel could receive the Torah and enter the land of Israel. It is not without reason that the Sages said, “The body of Joseph and the Tabernacle, where the Tablets of the Law were kept, traveled side by side in the desert, for the former practiced what was written on the latter” (Sotah 13a,b). In other words, Joseph had the power to protect the Children of Israel and watch over them because of his holiness.
Only Joseph had the power to silence the accusers that arose by the Sea of Reeds. This is because he left his garment in the hand of Potiphar’s wife (Genesis 39:12), even though this garment would be used as evidence against him. By the Sea of Reeds, it became obvious that his children were capable of the same holiness as he was. The accusation of Egypt’s ministering angel (“these here are idolaters”) only applied to those who were forced into practicing idolatry (Shemot Rabba 16:2).
Despite the fact that Joseph had not committed any transgressions, he was thrown into prison and suffered greatly as a result. Nevertheless, his conduct gave the Children of Israel the merit to witness great miracles when they crossed the Sea of Reads, such that “what the plainest maidservant saw, Ezekiel ben Buzi did not see” (Mechilta ad loc.). There they succeeding in attaining complete faith in G-d and in Moses (Exodus 14:31), to the point of receiving the manna and the Torah, conquering the land of Israel, and later building the Temple. This shows just how the performance of each commandment is a powerful weapon, since in performing a certain commandment at a given time, a person and all his descendants are protected, even after 400 years. This is because G-d knows all that has been and all that will be, and everything is taken into account. He knows the results of every action, good or bad.
When Moses asked G-d, “Why have You done evil to this people?” (Exodus 5:22), i.e., why must they suffer so much, G-d answered him: “Now you will see what I shall do to Pharaoh” (ibid. 6:1). In other words, precisely because they suffered so much, they will return to Me. The word %;3 (“now”) is understood as meaning repentance (Bereshith Rabba 21:6; 38:14). By their repentance, Pharaoh would be punished and Egypt’s ministering angel would no longer be able to protest against the plagues that struck the Egyptians, whereas the Children of Israel (who had breached the 49 gates of impurity – Zohar Chadash, Yitro 39a) would be saved. The daily suffering of the Jews had the goal of enabling them to be saved. It was precisely through their suffering that the Children of Israel would acquire the strength to resist, and this suffering would deliver them. G-d, blessed be He, directs the world according to His will, and He weighs “the loss [incurred by the performance] of a mitzvah against the reward [eared by its observance], and the gain [derived] from a sin against the loss [that will follow]” (Perkei Avoth 2:1). In fact, the holiness of Joseph protected all the Children of Israel.