Rabbi Ilan Goldman
Former Rav-Shaliach, Bnei Akiva England
Currently Executive Director, Project Aseret


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One winter when I flew home from JFK to Ben Gurion Airport, there was a Kohen stranded at JFK because every El-Al flight he wanted to go on had a corpse on it, on its way to being buried in Israel.
 
The first person ever to ‘fly’ back to Israel to be buried is Yaacov in Parashat Vayechi. Yaacov and Yosef have taught us countless messages throughout their lives, but now as we conclude Sefer Bereishit they have one final message for us from their deathbeds. Yaacov requests to be buried in Israel and Yosef requests that his bones are taken with to Israel when the redemption comes.
 

Rav Hirsch[1] identifies an educational message here. Yaacov realised that his descendents will remain under the influence of Egyptian culture. There was only so much he could do to stop negative influences and assimilation during his lifetime, and his children would face an even greater challenge. His message to his children was that we do not belong here; we as a people have a mission in this world, and we must always remember that we do not belong in Egypt in order to remain loyal to our task.

Rashi quotes three Midrashim which tell us how Yaacov was concerned both about being buried in Egypt, and about being buried far from Israel. In Egypt, there was one concern of his burial place becoming a place of idol worship, and another of his grave becoming affected by the plague of lice. The third was the resurrection of the dead, one of the Rambam’s thirteen principles of faith, which can only occur in Israel. Yaacov wanted to be buried in Israel to avoid suffering the underground tunnel journey to Israel that people buried elsewhere will experience prior to the ultimate redemption. The Gemara only refers to this last point, as it is the greatest of Yaacov’s three claims, and this gives us a deeper insight into the idea of burial in Israel. When one is buried in Eretz Yisrael, it is as if he is buried under the altar; being buried in Israel causes atonement for the deceased[2].

But Eretz Yisrael is אֶרֶץ הַחַיִּים, the land of life, and the Gemara emphasises that we cannot compare how Eretz Yisrael absorbs someone while they are still alive to how Eretz Yisrael absorbs someone after they are already dead. The Gemara also states that whoever dwells in Eretz Yisrael lives without sin.

This is quite a strong statement, especially as many people doubt whether everyone should live in Israel specifically because our sins are more meaningful there. On the one hand, it may be true that sins in Israel (and all the more so, mitzvot) are more significant than they are elsewhere, but on the other hand living in Israel elevates us to the level of ‘life without a sin’. Although there are many Jews living in Israel who do not observe mitzvot, the mere fact that the Land has not vomited them out proves that this Gemara applies to them too[3]. As long as we remain in Eretz Yisrael, we are considered to be living a ‘life without a sin’.


[1] Rav Hirsch’s commentary on Bereishit 47:29
[2] Talmud Bavli, Ketubut 111a
[3] Chesed L’Avraham 3:12
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