We complete the book of Genesis this Shabbat. After we read the last line, the congregation declares together Hazak Hazak V’Nithazek, “Strength, strength, let us be strengthened.” These last few lines, themselves, end on a note of strength as the family members of Jacob are emerging as the People of Israel. Here they are personally addressed as “The Children of Israel” for the first time (Genesis 50:25).
God’s promise to Abraham and Sarah in the covenant is being realized. Yet, there is a minor problem: the Children of Israel are still in Egypt, and we know that the book of Exodus is going to take our people into slavery. Even though we know the present and future challenges, this last chapter plants the seed of redemption. The Torah connects us, through the burial of Jacob, to the Promised Land, when he is buried at the Cave of Machpelah, the family plot, if you will, where Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, and Leah are buried.
In the last lines, this connection to the Land is made even more explicit:
“Joseph said to his brothers, ‘I am about to die. God will surely take notice of you and bring you up from this land that He promised on oath to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob.’ So Joseph made the Children of Israel swear, saying, ‘When God has taken notice of you, you shall carry up my bones from here.’” (Genesis 50:24-25).
Where and how we are buried is a powerful statement about who we are, the connection to our posterity and our values. With this decision, Joseph fully identifies with his family instead of the Egyptian society that hosted him and gave him power. Joseph connects himself to and assures God’s future redemption of the People. Indeed, this oath was fulfilled by Moses when he the people went up from Egypt in Exodus 13:19.
In our hyper-mobile society, many long-standing Jewish cemeteries are struggling. Family plots are a thing of the past since families are dispersed all over the country. As a result, many people are choosing to be cremated. These decisions regarding death reflect the breakdown of our values and the future of our Jewish community.
Each year, Rabbi Eisen takes the 5th-6th Grade students to the cemetery to learn about Geniza, the tradition of burying documents, books, or even a Torah in order to obey the mitzvah not to destroy God’s Hebrew name. On this field trip, he also gives a tour of the cemetery. He demonstrates the historical strength of the Tucson Jewish community by pointing out the burial plots of the families of our lay and professional leaders, i.e., Rabbi Marcus and Bertha Breger and Cantor Maurice and Bessie Falkow’s plots.
Honoring our connection to past generations, to our relatives and friends who have died, reinforces our values and identity for future generations. When an ancestor dies, the Torah says, “he has been gathered to his people” (Genesis 25:8). The greatest decision is to make our eternal resting place part of theirs. By doing so, we deliberately and securely link ourselves in the mysterious chain of life and death. When we make such a decision to be buried among our ancestors, we become like Joseph, directing our children and future generations towards redemption even in the face of serious challenges.
This Winter Break, I encourage you to carve out time to visit the cemetery. Take your children with you. Demonstrate to them that even death does not end our connection to the ones we love. Our love and values are stronger than death.