The Hebrew meaning of the word Torah is law and instruction and teaching. We are not to read the weekly Torah portion as mere history, but as instructions on how to live. This is true not only for the commandments, but for the accounts of the lives of our holy Forefathers. As our Sages teach, “the doings of the fathers are signs for their children,” meaning that we are to derive lessons from the lives of Avraham, Yitzhak, and Yaacov, and the other great personages of our Biblical past.
We mentioned the example of Avraham. G-d could have brought things about so that Avraham be born in the Holy Land. Instead, G-d chose to have Avraham born in a foreign land, and then to command him to come to Israel, in order to teach all generations after him that like with the example of our father, Avraham, the command of “Lech lecha,” get thee forth to the Land, applies to all Jews wherever they might be born, in all times and in all places.
This teaching is reinforced in the concluding Torah portion of the Book of Bereshit when Yaacov makes his son, Yosef, promise to bury him in the Land of Israel. “Don’t bury me in Egypt,” he tells him. Because the eternal truths of the Torah speak to us today, and because “the doings of the fathers are signs for the children,” Yaacov is saying, “Don’t bury me America. Don’t bury me in England. Don’t bury me in Australia.”
One reason that Yaacov insisted being buried in the Land of Israel is that the resurrection of the dead will only come to pass in the Holy Land. He didn’t want his body to have to roll through bumpy and painful underground tunnels on its way to Jerusalem, as our Sages explain. And Egypt is close to the Holy Land. Imaging how unpleasant the journey will be for Jews buried in Los Angeles and Toronto!
The Midrash cites a few other reasons why Yaacov insisted on being buried in Israel, but the main reason was his fear that if he were to be buried in Egypt, his sons would chose to stay permanently in Egypt to be close to him. Yaacov wanted them to know that their one and only real home was in the Land of Israel, not in foreign lands, as the Psalm says, “How can I sing the L-rd’s song in a foreign land?” Egypt is a foreign land. America is a foreign land. France and England are foreign lands, no less polluted than Germany and Russia. According to Jewish law, the lands of the nations are halachically impure, possessing the status of a grave.
Yaacov was especially concerned because whereas he had come to Egypt to temporarily “sojourn” there during the famine, his sons began to “settle down” there. On the verse, “And they possessed property in it,” (Bereshit, 47:27), the Torah commentary, the Kli Yakar, condemns their behavior, explaining that, according to the prophecy to Avraham, they were supposed to be “aliens” in a land not theirs, but they sought to become landholders. He notes that the Hebrew verb form of “possessed” is passive, so it really reads, “And they were possessed by it.” The Midrash explains that the land took possession of them. That’s why a Jew in America thinks he is an American, and a Jew in France identifies with being a Frenchmen. A land has a mystical inertia or pull, like gravity, that makes a person feel like he belongs after living there for a time. Understanding this, Yaacov wanted to be sure that his sons remembered that their real home was Israel.
Abraham was commanded to leave his birthplace and go live in the Land of Israel, Yitzhak was told not to leave the Land of Israel at all, and Yaacov commanded his sons to take him out of Egypt after his death and bury him in the Land of Israel, so Jews for all generations to come would remember that G-d wants His Holy Nation to live in the Holy Land.
Exile was a punishment. Now G-d has rebuilt the Land of Israel, opened the gates of return, ingathered millions of Jews on Jewish airplanes, and transformed the disgraced and exiled remnant into a world superpower in a land that lay farrow for two-thousand years without them – what more obvious signs do we need to realize that it’s time to come home?
But why only be buried in Israel when you we can live here? Our Forefathers are calling out to us from the Torah. Their lives are like guideposts, pointing the way.
"Get thee forth to the land!"
Hope to see you here soon!