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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.
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
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
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?
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?
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?
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?
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
||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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