Parshas Vayechi - The Funeral Procession of Yaakov Avinu

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December 16 2010

The funeral procession for Yaakov Avinu is treated in the Torah with much elaboration. “And they came to Goren Ha-Atad (“Threshing Floor of Thorns”) in Transjordan and held a great and heavy eulogy.” (Bereshis 50:10) Rashi explains in the name of Chazal (using a variant text of Sotah 13a): “All of the kings of Canaan and the princes of Yishmael went to war, and when they saw Yosef’s crown placed on the casket of Yaakov, they all ceased and placed their crowns on Yaakov’s casket also, making the casket appear like a threshing floor surrounded by a fence of thorns.”

This homiletic interpretation obviously describes the high esteem and reverence accorded to Yaakov Avinu by the ruling forces in Eretz Yisroel, such that they observed a ceasefire and lay down their arms in deference to Yaakov’s funeral and bestowed honor upon the deceased. Is there any specific symbolism to this unusual midrashic narrative?

Canaan and Yishmael represent opposites. Whereas the culture of ancient Canaan represents the basest levels of social hedonism and abomination, Yishmael represents the unruly man, who cannot live within a social framework and must dwell in the wild. Whereas Canaan is fixated upon becoming one with the community in a perverse and amoral fashion, Yishmael assaults the community from without, ravaging the community rather than coming to terms with it. Whereas Canaan embodies “religion” of lustful, debased and self-indulging physical involvement and materialism, Yishmael embodies a fiery brand of monotheism and religious fury.

Each party to the above contrast has a major deficiency. Canaan cannot attain true faith and the real spiritual, as it clings to and is stuck in the quagmire of hedonistic indulgence, and Yishmael cannot deal properly with normative society and the material world.

Who possesses the resolution of this stark contrast of deficiencies? Yaakov. As borne out in previous divrei Torah in this series, Yaakov lived on a plane of spirituality, escorted by, grappling with and encountering malachim (angels), while being part of this world. Yaakov successfully brought heaven to earth and lived in the world by elevating it toward kedushah.

The kings of Canaan and the princes of Yishmael, upon seeing Yaakov’s regal casket, dropped their armaments, for each of these warring factions was engaged in a battle against a force of great deficiency. When encountering the force which embodied the successful engagement with the physical and its elevation to the spiritual, the force which was dialoging with heaven while being grounded on earth, the kings of Canaan and the princes of Yishmael were made still and conceded to the truth that Yaakov represented.

What is the significance of Yosef’s crown being perched upon Yaakov’s casket, such that “when they saw Yosef’s crown placed on the casket of Yaakov, they all ceased and placed their crowns on Yaakov’s casket”?

Chazal tell us that once Yosef was born, Yaakov was prepared to return to Eretz Yisroel and deal with Eisav. Yosef was the counterforce to Eisav, as the pasuk states, “And the House of Yaakov will be a fire and the House of Yosef its flame, and the House of Eisav will be (consumed like) straw”. (V. Rashi on Bereshis 30:25, from Medrash.) Whereas Yaakov was on the run from Lavan and Eisav, and had to leave Eretz Yisroel due to famine, Yosef was a secure ruler, manifesting a monarchy of kedushah and emunah in the material world. Yosef was the realized force and actualization of the concepts embodied by Yaakov. This force, the flame of Yosef, emanating from the casket and persona of Yaakov, caused the warring forces of Canaan and Yishmael to become subdued and silenced and to concede to the true resolution of life’s battle.  


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