Rabbi Joan Glazer Farber
Promises. Most of us have made a promise at some point in
our lives. Maybe you were young and wanted a puppy: you promised to walk that
dog every day, you promised to feed that dog, you promised anything that you
thought would convince your parents to adopt that puppy. Maybe you were in high
school and wanted a later curfew, so you promised to get better grades and to
abide by the curfew. Perhaps you were older and had found your
you promised to love and care for your partner. Maybe you shared a concern or a
dream or a job transition with a friend and ask him/her to promise not to
share. As we age, the promises we make and the conditions become more
significant and sometimes more complicated. We think carefully about the
consequences of these promises and learn to not make promises lightly.
According to Merriam-Webster.com, a promise is defined
a. A declaration that one will do or refrain from doing
b. A legally binding declaration that gives the person to
whom it is made a right to expect or to claim the performance or the
forbearance of a specified act
On a basic level, a promise is just a statement. The one
who makes the promise either keeps it or doesn’t. On this level, it appears
there are no consequences, but what will the person who heard the promise
And then again, a promise is a legally binding
declaration with an expected outcome. The maker of the promise is held
responsible for following through with that outcome.
In the examples above, those who have heard our promises
are able to hold us to our word. But what about promises which affect someone
who will not know if we kept our word? Parashat Va’Y’chi teaches us about such
Jacob had lived in the land of Egypt for 17 years;
Jacob’s days—the years of his life—were 147. When Israel’s time to die drew
near, he summoned his son Joseph and said to him, ’If I have but found favor in
your sight, please put your hand under my thigh and treat me with faithful
kindness; please do not bury me in Egypt. When I [am laid to] rest with my
ancestors, carry me out of Egypt and bury me in their burial place.
(Genesis 47: 28-30)
Jacob is asking for something which he will never know
the outcome. His last wish is to be buried in the Cave of the Machpelah,
alongside of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah and Leah. Jacob wanted to be
buried in his homeland.
Jacob’s words and the action he requests all indicate the
significance of this moment. First, he summons Joseph and not one of his other
sons. Jacob is aware that Joseph is the only one of his sons with a position of
power, who will be able to approach Pharaoh for permission to leave Egypt.
Second, his request to Joseph, “put your hand under my thigh,” stresses the
importance of the words which will follow. Jacob is recreating the scene from
earlier in Genesis when Abraham instructed Eliezer to find a wife for Isaac.
“The custom of swearing while placing one’s hand on some object persists in our
time: in Jewish tradition certain oaths were made while holding
The Torah: A Modern Commentary
, URJ Press,
p. 156). Jacob understood the challenges which his request would be entail and
needed to be confident that his request would be fulfilled. Next, Jacob used
the words, chesed v’emet, here translated as “faithful kindness,” and then adds
the specific request concerning his burial. It is these words which we use to
describe the mitzvah of accompanying the deceased to burial, because it is this
act for which there is no opportunity for reciprocation.
After Jacob’s death, Joseph approaches Pharaoh’s
household and asks them to speak on his behalf to Pharaoh, saying: “If I have
found favor in your sight, please speak to Pharaoh and say: ‘
adjured me, saying, “See, I am about to die; in my grave that I acquired for
myself in the land of Canaan, there must you bury me.” Now, then, give me leave
to go up and bury my father, then I will come back.’” Pharaoh said. “Go up and
bury your father as he adjured you.
” (Genesis 50: 4-6)
Thus, with Pharaoh’s permission, Joseph fulfills the
promise he had made to his father. At the conclusion of the parashah, as Joseph
is preparing for his own death, he says: “
I am dying, but God will surely
take care of you and bring you up out of this land to the land that [God]
promised to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob.” Joseph adjured Israel’s children,
saying, “God will surely take care of you; bring my bones up from this place!
As Joseph fulfilled Jacob’s request, in a few weeks we
will read that the Israelites took Joseph’s bones with them as they left Egypt
thus fulfilling Joseph’s request. (See Exodus 13:19)
The promises which are made and kept in our parashah set
a high standard for the promises we might make in the course of our lives. When
we have the opportunity to follow the example of Joseph and the Israelites to
perform the mitzvah of chesed v’emet for a loved one or a friend, may our
actions reflect our devotion to the deceased and the respect and caring they
deserved in life and death.
Rabbi Joan Glazer Farber
an independent consultant focusing on lifelong Jewish learning and a teacher of
adult learners. She is a member of Woodlands Community Temple in White Plains,