A Weekly Mitzvah
Hesed Shel Emet: Caring for Others in Death
Parashat Vayechi
Parshat Vayechi 5767
Genesis 47:28 - 50:26

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With love to their grandchildren
Elka, Joshua, Lindsay, Oren Z”L, Jenny, David, Lauren, Zenfira, and Emily
 

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In the final Parshah in the book of Genesis we learn about the deaths of our forefather, Jacob, and his son, Joseph. As Jacob approaches the end of his life, he calls Joseph to his bedside and our forefather asks his son to bury him in the land of Canaan along with his father and grandfather, Abraham and Isaac. He even insists that Jacob take an oath and promise to perform this final act of filial devotion. Jacob refers to his burial as an act of hesed ve’emet, as an act of true kindness because it is completely selfless; there is no expectation that the deceased will reward us for our kindness or thank us for caring for them this one last time. For many people putting a shovel of earth into the grave of a loved one is a cathartic and painful act. It reminds us of the finality of this moment and the deep sense of loss that one is feeling. And yet from the perspective of Judaism personally participating in the burial of another person is an act of love and devotion. The Jewish tradition even prescribes the way in which this act is to be carried out.

Genesis 47:29-30
And when the time approached for Israel to die, he summoned his son Joseph and said to him: ‘Do me this favor, place your hand under my thigh as a pledge of (hesed ve’emet) 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.
Another translation of hesed ve’emet is, ‘true kindness.’ Literally it is ‘kindness and truth.’

Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, Rashi, Genesis 47:29
Hesed ve’emet: An act of kindness which is performed for the dead is an act of true kindness, for the one who performs the act has no expectations of recompense or payment.

Rabbi Hayim Yaakov Zuckerman, Otzar Hayim: A collection of hasidic insights on the weekly Parshah
(Commenting on Rashi’s commentary,) Isn’t there really recompense even in acts of kindness we perform for the deceased? Just as one takes care of the burial of his fellow man, so too one expects others to do the same for him. No one ever expects or wants to receive such recompense.

Midrash Bereshit Rabbah 96:5
"Act in steadfast loyalty to me; . . . carry me out of Egypt, and bury me" (Genesis 47:29-30). Is there such a thing as loyalty that is not steadfast? No, but what Jacob said to Joseph was: If after my death you act in loyalty toward me, that will be "steadfast loyalty." [Why did Jacob speak thus? He spoke in refutation of] the cynical proverb "When your friend's son dies, give your friend sympathy; when your friend himself dies--be on your way!"

Rabbi Asher Ben Yehiel, Baal Haturim 1270-1343
Hesed ve’emet: The word, emet spelled aleph, mem, tof is an abbreviation for aron (casket in which they are buried), mita (funeral bier used to carry the person to the grave), and tachrichin, (shrouds in which the deceased is dressed).

Rabbi Tzvi Rabbinowicz, A Guide to Life: Jewish Laws and Customs of Mourning
The body is lowered into the grave with the head facing toward the west and the feet toward the east and all those who are present say, “May he (or she) come to his (or her) place of peace.
It is a mitzvah to fill the grave. Three spades full of earth are dropped in the grave by each of those present as a symbol of the threefold composition of man: soul spirit and breath. After the spade has been used, it must not be passed to the next person but is replaced on the ground so that one man should not appear to be passing on trouble to another. Moreover, the passing of the spade from hand to hand would indicate a relationship of over-lordship and servitude but in the presence of death we are all equal. “Neither hath he power over the day of death.”  (Ecclesiastes 8:8)When the grave is filled the prayer tzidduk hadin is recited…

Questions to Ponder
   
1.

Why was Jacob so insistent in having Joseph make an oath regarding his burial in the land of Canaan? Did Jacob have any reason to believe that Jacob might be less than faithful in seeing to his burial?

   
2.

There are many different translations of the words ‘hesed ve’emet.’ What is the difference between an act which is referred to as an act of steadfast loyalty as opposed to an act which is described as an act of true loving kindness? What does each translation say about what Jacob is asking Joseph to do?

   
3.

In what sense is burying the dead an act of unconditional love? In what sense is it part of the social contract that we share with others?

   
4.

Why do we avoid handing the shovel from person to person when we are filling in the grave?  What affect does this have on prolonging the length of the burial ceremony?

   
5.

Do you think participating in the actual burial of the dead is necessarily a good thing? Are there circumstances under which the family and friends shouldn’t fill in the grave?

   
6. Image that a member of your immediate family asks you not to fill in the grave or demands that they be cremated.  What should a person do if a member of his immediate family demands that he not be buried in the traditional manner? Is one obligated to respect the wishes of the deceased or should one place tradition first?
   

“All it takes to study Torah is an open heart, a curious mind and a desire to grow a Jewish soul.”
Copyright 2006 Rabbi Mark B Greenspan

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