In this last perasha of Sefer Bereishit, Ya’akov Avinu asks his son, Yosef to do חסד ואמת — “Kindness and truth”
…אל נא תקברני במצרים
Please do not bury me in Egypt
Instead, transport my remains to the Land of Canaan, and bury me with my fathers in the Cave of the Machpelah.
Our sages understand the term חסד ואמת as an act of true kindness – not just חסד ואמת -kindness and truth – but חסד של אמת – a unique form of kindness: true kindness, with no strings attached: Preparation and burial of the dead will not be reciprocated by the deceased.
This foundational Jewish idea, though, falls somewhat short of being the simple meaning of the text. Contextually, Yaakov seems to refer to חסד ואמת not simply as a request for burial per se – but as a specific request to be buried in Canaan. To ensure compliance, Ya’akov even presses Yosef to swear that he will carry out this mission.
R. Shimshon Raphael Hirsch has an original explanation of חסד ואמת: Ya’akov is asking Yosef to ensure that the Hesed, the kindness of burial, be done in Canaan, the true homeland of our people.” He understands that B’nai Yisrael had begun “to see the Jordan in the Nile”, that the family was losing a sense of what it truly meant to be in Galut, in exile. Paradoxically, Yosef’s successful integration of B’nai Yisrael into Egyptian culture threatened our intrinsic connection to our homeland.
In response to his father’s charge, Yosef says:
אנכי אעשה כדבריך
I will do as you say
אנכי מצד עצמי אעשה כדברך בכל כחי
I will – on my own – do what you ask – with all of my power
The simplest understanding of Sforno is that Yosef is offering some push-back to the idea of an oath. As if to say, “No need to formalize this, Abba, I will make sure that your wishes are fulfilled!”
But in the next verse, Ya’akov insists on the oath, and Yosef consents.
Ramban is puzzled by Ya’akov’s hard-line stance: According to Ramban, Ya’akov was not suspicious of his beloved, righteous son – that he would not follow through on his father’s commandment, after saying “I will do as you say”. Rather, Ya’akov did this in order to strengthen the matter in Pharoah’s eyes; otherwise, Pharoah may not have given Yosef permission to leave Egypt, preferring Yosef to send his brothers and servants to bury Ya’akov. Another possibility: Pharoah would want the prophet, Ya’akov, to be buried in his land as an honor and merit to the Egyptian people.
Ramban suggests yet another reason for the oath: “Yosef would now have to put in more effort because of the oath….”
In other words, Ya’akov understands that in order to guarantee fulfillment of the mitzvah, he must transform his commandment into an internal imperative for Yosef.
A similar thought is echoed in the famous statement by the great Hillel in Pirkei Avot: אם אין אני לי, מי לי? “If I am not for myself, who is for me?” Rabbeinu Yonah explains that fundamentally, receiving rebuke from another person is fraught with the limitation that the pressure to change one’s behavior is external rather than internal. I, says Hillel, must engage myself in a “self-reproof”, critical self-evaluation – and inspire myself to make that change. While external pressure to alter behavior has only temporary impact, one who engages in self-reproof is more likely to experience permanent change.
After writing these words, inspired by Rabbi Maury Grebenau, I was thinking: According to our sages, the forefathers fulfilled the entire Torah before it was given. If so, Yosef presumably adhered to the mitzvah of honoring parents. That means that Yosef would have felt the religious imperative to implement his father’s request to be buried in Israel by virtue of Kibud Av V’em – honoring parents. If so, how does Ya’akov’s oath trigger a greater internal imperative for Yosef?