Parashat Vayechi concludes with the Torah’s only reference to the embalming and placing in a coffin of a body - of Joseph, son of Jacob (Israel) and major figure of authority in Egypt.
Joseph, who had found himself excluded from his own family, was now at the centre of that family’s life as its powerful guarantor and benefactor in Egypt.
Joseph's death represents a symbolic ending of a stage of Jewish history from the travails of a relatively small tribe to the formation of a people who will undergo slavery, the Exodus and desert experiences and finally be on the verge of attaining its national aspiration.
Joseph holds a unique place in that history. He is a part of the early patriarchal family - the two tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh are descendents of his sons - but he is also woven into Egyptian society at its highest levels.
The placing of his body into a coffin is understood as his desire to be a part of both. Unlike his father, Joseph does not request immediate interment in the land of his ancestors but, while he is embalmed in Egypt, he extracts the promise that in the future his bones will depart with his descendants if they leave Egypt.
By tradition, it was to be 139 years before Joseph's coffin left Egypt. The Babylonian Talmud relates that at the Exodus Moses sought counsel from Asher, a survivor of that generation, asking: “‘Do you know where Joseph was buried?’ She answered, ‘The Egyptians made a metal coffin for him which they placed in the River Nile so that its waters should be blessed.’
“Moses went and stood on the bank of the Nile and declared: ‘Joseph! Joseph! The time has arrived, foretold by the Eternal One (‘I will deliver you’) and of the promise you extracted from your brothers. If you show yourself, good; if not we are free of that promise’. Immediately Joseph’s coffin floated [on the surface of the water]” (Sotah 13a).
Controversy about the location of Joseph’s grave still exists but, with all his faults, Joseph remains the exemplar of a Jew who, on the one hand, never forgot his familial roots but with skill, aptitude, hard work and faith was able to make a contribution at the highest echelons of the society in which he found himself.
That remains the task of the modern Jew: to contribute to a more decent world from the depths of Jewish teaching and experience.
Rabbi Danny Rich