In this week’s Torah portion, Vayechi, Jacob, on his deathbed, makes a last request of his son Joseph. “Bury me not, I pray you, in Egypt!” he implores. “I will do as you have said,” Joseph promises his father. But Joseph’s promise is not enough. “Swear to me!” Jacob insists, and Joseph does.
Why was Joseph’s promise insufficient? Was Jacob worried that his son would not fulfil his promise? What is the difference between a promise and an oath?
An oath differs from a promise in the sense of obligation and urgency it imposes. When a person makes a promise, he most certainly intends to carry out his word when the opportunity presents itself, but he does not spend all of his waking hours thinking about the promise and wondering how to implement it. But when a person utters an oath, it becomes the single most important motivating factor in his life. An oath is so serious, in fact, that the person dare not divert his mind from the matter for even a moment.
Jacob realized that what he asked of Joseph was so difficult and fraught with obstacles that the force of an oath was necessary.
This exchange between father and son also underscores an important difference between Jacob and Joseph: Jacob refused to be interred in Egypt, insisting that his body be brought back to the land of Israel for burial. Joseph, however, before his death, made the Jews swear they would take his bones back with them to Israel when the time for redemption came. His casket remained in Egypt for the duration of the exile.
It is erroneous to conclude that Jacob’s request was made for selfish reasons; that he preferred to be buried in the holy soil of Israel while his children languished in Egyptian exile. Rather, Jacob’s concern was for the welfare of the entire Jewish people.
“The prisoner cannot free himself from prison,” our Sages have declared. The Jewish people, subjugated and enslaved, needed an outside force to free them from exile in Egypt. This outside force was the merit of Jacob, whose rightful place was the holy land of Israel, from where the Jewish people drew strength and spiritual sustenance.
Joseph, however, was exiled in Egypt with the rest of his brethren. His positive influence came from within and was therefore closer and more immediate. When he passed away, his remains stayed in Egypt, affording the Jews an additional merit. Jacob wanted to forestall the possibility that Joseph would want his body to remain in Egypt for this reason, and insisted that he swear to his request.
We learn from this that although the Divine Presence has indeed accompanied us throughout our exile, a Jew must nevertheless cry out for the galut to end and for all of us to be “carried out of Egypt.” With faith and trust in G-d we will merit the coming of Moshiach and the Final Redemption, speedily in our day. Moshiach NOW!!!