Giving Memory a Place to Live

Erica Brown, the great Jewish scholar, might be one of the smartest people I know. In this column, she puts the return of the bodies of the two Israeli soldiers into proper Jewish context:

“Joseph made the sons of Israel swear, saying, ‘When God has taken notice of you, you shall carry up my bones from here.’”

Genesis 50:25

This week, all eyes turned to the Middle East as a prisoner swap shook Israel and Lebanon. The remains of two Israeli soldiers abducted in 2006 – Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev (may their memories be for a blessing) – were exchanged for 5 living Lebanese prisoners. The word “swap” communicates an evenness of exchange. Nothing could have been more uneven. There are people on every side of the political spectrum arguing about the controversy of this painful arrangement. Will it stimulate more kidnappings? Was it fair? Was Israel too soft? Too harsh? Too late? Did they hold out long enough?

All of the politics may mask some of the profoundly human questions we ask about death at times like this. We may get lost in debate and lose sight of the respect owed the actual body and the last wishes of those who can no longer communicate them to us. We often wonder, as we contemplate death, where we will go in the fullness of time. Some people take great comfort in buying burial plots simply because it is a small way to control that which is beyond our control. It is a way of envisioning some physical end when we have little understanding of what spiritually lives after us.

The idea of having one’s remains brought back to Israel for burial is as old as the book of Genesis itself. Abraham and Sarah and their children are buried in Israel; they also died in Israel. Jacob, however, bemoans the fact that he is to die in Egypt. He feels himself unworthy of the legacy of his ancestors because he did not live out his days in the Holy Land. Consequently, he makes a request of his sons: “Bury me with my fathers…” and then enters a lengthy description about the burial plot of his father and grandfather.

In a remarkable act, Joseph asks Pharaoh for permission to return to Canaan with his brothers to bury their father with dignity following Jacob’s last wish. The text conveys the formality of the procession; “all the officials of Pharaoh” came with Joseph on this mission. The group stays in Canaan for seven days and returns. This trip is striking on many fronts, not least of which is that they make this journey there and back so quickly; in only one chapter’s time, we begin the book of Exodus that presages the same return. This time, it takes forty years.

In the very same chapter, Joseph approaches his own death and utters with his last breath the request that his remains be carried back to Canaan. He tells his brothers that they will not stay in Egypt forever but will make their way back following a covenantal promise to Abraham. At that time, they are to take Joseph’s bones back to where they truly belong. Joseph understands that this process may take years but that eventually his remains will reside eternally in the land where he could not live in his lifetime.

This wish enables Joseph to die in peace. In the biblical text, both Jacob and Joseph die immediately after assurances that this promise would be kept. The promise is a comfort and a hope. It is a plea for continuity with the land for those who live after them. It is a way of keeping the memory of these individuals alive by having a marker in a place where their memory will stay sacred. It is also a way for each of them to put closure to a life spent in a place not of their own choosing. It is a way to imagine the rest in resting place.

This week, Israel kept an ancient tradition through tears. Putting aside the politics of it all, this enormous sacrifice offered closure to waiting families and friends. It offered Jews around the world the closure of our open prayers. It helps us understand that there really is no price for a life. It offered dignity to death and gave memory a place to live.

Shabbat Shalom