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Vayehi 5783 ~ January 6, 2023

This past week I observed the twentieth yahrzeit for my father. As I read through our Torah reading, Vayechi, I recognized a question that he and my mother asked of both my sister and myself.

As Jacob is on his deathbed, he turns to Joseph and asks the following of his son: ““Do me this favor, place your hand under my thigh as a pledge of your steadfast loyalty: please do not bury me in Egypt. When I lie down with my fathers, take me up from Egypt and bury me in their burial-place.”” (Genesis 47:29-30).

So, what is wrong with being buried where you last lived prior to death? Or in other words: “What is wrong with Egypt and being buried there?” Afterall, the Israelite nation would sojourn there for more than four hundred years, and all those who had died there would not be returned to the land of our forefathers! Why should not only Jacob, but also Joseph, make similar requests? (And where were the brothers of Joseph buried when they died? There is no mention in the Torah of their being returned to the Land of Canaan for burial. Yet the commentary Bechor Shor suggests that same hesed was observed for each of the twelve brothers.)

I recognized a similar request from my parents regarding their final place of resting. “Is it important to you where we are buried?” Why was their request so significant? Simply stated: their burial plots were located in what is known as Bathurst Lawn Cemetery in Toronto, in a section that is specifically for members of the shul that they helped establish and grow. Many of their siblings who were members of that same congregation were also buried in that area. 

My parents turned to my sister and myself one day and asked: “Since neither of you live close to Toronto anymore, what is the chance that you will come to visit our graves? And since that is the case, if we choose not to be buried in that cemetery, out of economic obligations of membership, would you be disappointed?” Needless to say, I was totally devastated by their question. There were two realities that were being brought to my attention. The first was the change in their financial situation, now that they had both retired. The second was the thought that they would be buried anywhere else but in the Beth Emeth Bais Yehuda section of Bathurst Lawn Cemetery.

I see that same reality unfold as a rabbi on a frequent basis. Families today are quite transient. Many move on to warmer climates or closer to children who have moved away from our community.  When Mom and Dad get on in age, either the question is left sitting on the table for children to decide, or mom and dad have already made the choice to have their bodies returned from wherever to the place they called home. 

What if there were no burial plots purchased or reserved? What if everyone now moved and live in other areas of the country or the world? Does that promise made to my parents remain a hesed shel emet, a kindness of truth that must be fulfilled? “If I never would have visited their graves following burial and an unveiling of their monument, why should I maintain such a hesed?”

For me, my answer was absolute: “I can only picture you being buried - as Jacob stated in the Torah - where the rest of your family has plots. Even if I never visit, I know where you are, and that is important to me, as well.”

Over the years, I have visited my parents graves several times.  I also maintain a picture of their monuments on my phone, so that whenever I need to visit them, they are there. I can actually visualize the entrance to the cemetery and precisely where they are buried and where their siblings are, as well.  It is that hesed that I maintain.  Lisa marvels that I also know precise directions to her father’s and grandparents’ graves in the Cedar Lawn Memorial Park in New Jersey.

As I talk with families, I learn that in most instances children do understand that commitment to the hesed.  I also note that once buried, children may not return to visit their parents’ graves, but that the original promise of “where” is one that, more often than not, is kept.

The commentary Sforno provides us with some additional insight into Jacob’s request. It is the “why” individuals make such requests. “When you will follow this procedure, you will be able to carry me out of Egypt, for when the days of lying-in state will have come to an end, people will no longer be in a state of sorrow over my passing, and no one will protest if you will transport my remains to another country.” In other words, memorial or celebration of life services might take place in the community where mom and dad last resided, but burial is something that for many has become sacrosanct.  One might think that I should be buried where I have made my last or latest group of friends and community, but after a while, I will only be a distant memory and where I am buried is where I had made my life or where my parents did.  And where interment happens is a matter that is as sacred a promise as burial itself.

As I was writing this message, I went to Lisa and said to her: “You know, now that we are living here in Mystic and we will be living here for several more years to come, do you have any thoughts about what I am writing about for this Torah message?” She looked at me, somewhat taken aback, wondering why I would ask such a question at our “youthful age.”

I guess she has never thought about it, but as one who is involved in fulfilling that hesed with families, it has often come across my thoughts.  And now it is just a matter of expressing those same thoughts to our children with the hope that they agree and that hesed will be fulfilled for us, as well.

As Lisa’s mother is about to celebrate her ninety-third birthday in the coming week, I guess I recognize not only the hesed we provide her in life in visiting her quite often on Long Island, but the unspoken promise we have made to her about that future hesed shel emet  that we will fulfill as a family. Hopefully, we will be able to celebrate many more happy occasions with her. And, as she said to me, she has one more aspiration that she is hoping will be fulfilled in her lifetime. I, as her son-in-law, pray that she is able to experience that joy, as well.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi K

Sat, April 1 2023 10 Nisan 5783