Parashat vayehi: Sanctification of death or the freedom of man?

The perspective of death is a tragedy, since man is capable of taking advantage of his life to be moral and advance values of truth and righteousness.

THE GIZA Pyramids are seen amid Cairo’s modern buildings (photo credit: AMR ABDALLAH DALSH / REUTERS)
THE GIZA Pyramids are seen amid Cairo’s modern buildings
This week’s Torah portion of Vayehi, the last of the Book of Genesis, tells of Jacob’s death and his parting from his sons before he dies. Jacob’s 12 sons gather around their father’s bed and listen to his last words, which include special blessings for each one of them and various hints about their future. But before that, Jacob parts from his beloved son Joseph, making him vow to fulfill his last directive: to bury him with his forefathers in the Cave of Machpela in Hebron in the Land of Israel.
Actually, that one directive included two requests that combined to create one: “Do not bury me now in Egypt” and “I will lie with my forefathers… and you shall bury me in their tomb.” (Genesis 47:29-30)
Biblical commentators explained the practical significance of this division as being that, if for some reason it was not possible to bury Jacob in the Tomb of the Patriarchs, he should still not be buried in Egypt.
It is easy to understand Jacob’s desire to be buried with his forefathers. But why was Jacob so opposed to being buried in Egypt? The sages of the Midrash and the great commentator Rashi suggested several reasons for Jacob’s request, one of which was that he feared that the Egyptian nation would turn his grave into an idolatrous site.
Death rituals were a major element of Egyptian culture and Jacob refused to take part in them, even if indirectly. As in many other places in the Bible, here, too, we see the bitter struggle waged by Judaism against idolatry. To this day, Judaism continues to wage this fight, though the concept of idolatry has many disguises and takes on many shapes.
Ancient Egyptian culture, and many other idolatrous cultures, sanctified death and made it a focus. This led to rituals of mummification and the building of monumental burial structures, some of which, like the Pyramids, remain standing in Giza near Cairo.
Judaism, however, wishes to distance death from life, forbidding any connection between the bodies of the deceased and worship in the Temple; so much so that a person who was in a house with a dead body was strictly forbidden to enter the Temple Mount complex in Jerusalem until he had undergone a complex process of purification.
This difference between Judaism and idolatrous religions and cultures is not coincidental. It stems from the attitude toward man and his life. A culture that sanctifies death is one that views man as lacking freedom and a moral purpose. As such, the passive state of death becomes man’s basic existential stance.
This position exists today as well – not in its original form expressed through various rituals, but as “scientific” attempts to describe man as a deterministic creation incapable of fulfilling a purpose or moral role.
Judaism, on the other hand, sees man in a different light. Maimonides, the greatest Jewish philosopher and rabbinical authority of the Middle Ages, describes the belief in the freedom and free choice of man as “the pillar of Torah and mitzva,” emphasizing that “The Creator does not impose on humans to do good or bad, but everything is available to them” (Mishne Torah, Hilchot Tshuva, chapter 5).
This perspective positions death as a tragedy, since man is capable of taking advantage of his life to be moral and advance values of truth and righteousness.
Judaism strives to obliterate the very term for death, as said by the Prophet Isaiah when describing the utopian future when “He has concealed death forever, and the Lord God shall wipe the tears off every face” (Isaiah 25:8).
Praying at the tombs of forefathers and righteous men, which is accepted in Judaism, does not mean sanctifying death and attributing powers to the dead. The prayers said at these graves are only to God. The sites are considered sacred because these people were sacred when they were alive. In the merit of the deeds they did through their free will, their burial sites became places of prayer.
Sanctification of death stands in stark contrast with the values of Judaism, because there is no limit to the value attributed by Judaism to man’s free will and ability to fulfill his eternal purpose to “repair the world in the Kingdom of God.”
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.