by: Arthur Sandman, Executive Vice President, International Development, The Jewish Agency for Israel
As December approaches its end, we will conclude the book of Bereishit,
וַיָּמָת יוֹסֵף, בֶּן-מֵאָה וָעֶשֶׂר שָׁנִים; וַיַּחַנְטוּ אֹתוֹ, וַיִּישֶׂם בָּאָרוֹן בְּמִצְרָיִם
And Joseph died; he was one hundred twenty years old; and they embalmed him and placed him in a coffin in Egypt.
It is a stark ending. Joseph dies, and he is placed in the suffocating confines of a box (or sarcophagus) in an alien land. It occurs to me that one can read the verse even more forbiddingly—that “in Egypt” does not set the coffin geographically, but rather is a synonym; in other words, the coffin and Egypt are one and the same. It is a striking passage, because it is unlike so many that came before. “And the life of Sara was one hundred and twenty seven years…” “And Abraham breathed his last, dying at a good ripe age, old and contented; and he was gathered to his kin.” Similar is the account of Isaac’s passing. Jacob buries his beloved Rachel on the road to Bethlehem, at Efrat, and places a stone on her resting place. Jacob, surrounded by his children, was “gathered to his kin” and then receives a royal funeral. The deaths of Rebecca and Leah are not recounted, but Bereishit makes clear they were properly buried in the cave of Machpela. Joseph’s bones, on the other hand, are to lie unburied in the cold confines of a coffin in exile.
Death is always sad, but it is not always disturbing. Joseph’s death is disquieting because already, years before the Children of Israel are enslaved in Egypt, he knows that he lacks the freedom to be buried outside of Egypt, in his ancestral home. His death is the Torah’s way of telling us that Egypt is not a granary where the Hebrews found sustenance amid famine, but it is a place of dark exile. Joseph’s death was the death of freedom.
Most of the focus in Jewish communal work is on life, not death. I would think that few who are reading this newsletter are funeral directors or hospice care workers or grief counselors. The vast majority of us do our work with a focus on caring for the living and bringing meaning into their lives. And that is as it should be.
It should not be that I receive a call in the afternoon to discuss how my organization, The Jewish Agency for Israel, will respond to the murder of one of its program participants. It should not be that I find myself attending a funeral in an official capacity amid circumstances not only profoundly sad but terribly disturbing. It should not be that I deliberate with colleagues over how one positions and promotes experiences in Israel when, for one, it led to tragedy. But such was the case on November 19th, when Ezra Schwartz’s Masa experience in Israel ended in the hail of a terrorist’s bullets not far from where our matriarch Rachel’s death occurred.
Ultimately, Joseph’s bones are borne by the Children of Israel on their Exodus from Egypt and buried after they complete their journey to the Promised Land. But the ending of the saga of Joseph’s bones does nothing to ameliorate the harsh truth at the end of Bereishit—the harsh reality of exile and impending oppression. I want to believe that there is blessing to be found in the way Ezra’s bloodied body and clothing was collected by the pious men who do this tragic work in Israel, in the throngs that gathered at Ben Gurion airport to say farewell, in the way a Reform congregation in Sharon, Massachusetts gave over its facility to the grieving family from an Orthodox synagogue for a funeral, in the myriads who carried his body from shul to grave, in those who shared their condolences with a family in grief. But the ending of the saga of Ezra Schwartz’s body does nothing to ameliorate the harsh truth of his death—that there are those who want Israel destroyed and our people annihilated.
We are Jewish communal professionals. Our work is the work of life. We are rudely reminded from time to time that we cannot escape the historic perils of being Jews—when death seeks out our people for who we are. But I cannot abide the unredeeming conclusion of Bereishit. I cannot. The prophet Ezekiel famously muses on dry bones lying unburied on the floor of a valley. “You shall know, O My people, that I am the Lord, when I have opened your graves and lifted you out of your graves. I will put My breath into you and you shall live again, and I will set you upon your own soil.” A communal worker cannot breathe life back into the bones of Ezra Schwartz. That is for God to do. But we can strive mightily to ensure that the soil on which he died—the soil of Eretz Yisrael—remains our own and so may one day again be his.