By Rabbi Ben Tzion Shafier
And Yisrael came close to the day of his death, and he called to his son, to Yosef, and he said, “If I have found favor in your eyes, do to me a chesed and truth: please do not bury me in Mitzrayim.
Rabbeinu Tam explains that Yaakov Avinu didn’t want to be buried in Mitzrayim, because this would prevent Hashem from bringing the ten makkos on the land in which he lay. Therefore, he asked Yosef to take an oath that he would not bury him there.
This concept seems very difficult to understand. Why would the mere presence of Yaakov’s body, more than 200 years after his death, prevent Hashem from bringing the makkos?
The ten makkos are pillars of our emunah. This becomes even more perplexing when we take into account that the makkos were critical for teaching emunah to the generations. The Ramban points out that Hashem could have brought the Jewish people out of Mitzrayim in any manner that He chose. Hashem took them out over a ten-month period in a specific way to show the world a great lesson: By freeing the Jews via the makkos, Hashem was demonstrating his control over every facet of nature.
This was the one time in history that Hashem showed that nature is the system that Hashem uses to run the world, but that nothing happens without Him. To the Mitzrim, it was a demonstration of Hashem’s might. It gave them the opportunity to recognize their error and do teshuvah. To the Jews, it was the first of the signs that Hashem had created this world and that He maintains and orchestrates every event within it. Even today, the makkos remain one of the pillars of our emunah. We recount them, we study them, and we discuss them because they help us to understand Hashem’s relationship to His creation.
It was only the shell being buried. This question is compounded dramatically when we focus on the fact that the body is merely the house of the soul. When the neshamah goes up to Shamayim, it leaves the shell behind. The body is used for a few short years, and then it is deposited in the ground. It was Yaakov’s body that would have been buried in Mitzrayim-not Yaakov himself.
Since the makkos were so central to our entire belief system, and it was only Yaakov’s remains that would be placed there, why did he assume that, centuries later, the makkos could not be brought to Mitzrayim if his body were buried there?
The importance of man, the reason for Creation. The answer to this question seems to be that the Torah has a vastly different understanding of the role of man and his importance than we commonly assume. The Mesillas Yesharim teaches us that since the world was created solely to serve man, its very existence is dependent upon him. When man uses the world appropriately, he becomes elevated, and the world becomes elevated through him. On the other hand, when man is pulled after the world, he becomes corrupted and thereby corrupts the very world that supports him.
As the sole purpose of the worlds is to serve man, only when it is used properly does it have a reason to exist. When a tzaddik uses a part of the world, he provides that portion with its purpose in existence. Effectively, the tzaddik is the pillar and sustainer of the world he uses. Without him, that part shouldn’t exist. But when a wicked man uses part of the world, he robs it of its reason to exist, and by that account, it should be destroyed.
Yaakov was the pillar of the world. When a man reaches Yaakov Avinu’s level of perfection, it isn’t just the part of the world that he uses that fulfills its reason for existence. It isn’t only his city or hometown that benefits. The entire world gains. On some level, the entire world is needed to support the tzaddik, and thereby serves the tzaddik. For there to be a land of Canaan, there needs to be a planet Earth, and for there to be a planet Earth, there must be a sun providing light, energy, and heat. For there to be sun, there must be a Milky Way providing the gravitational balance to keep the sun in orbit. So just as Canaan cannot exist in a vacuum in space and is supported by the rest of the universe, so too everything the tzaddik uses is built on another part of the world, and thereby fulfills its purpose. Effectively, Yaakov Avinu kept the entire globe in existence. His proper use of the world was the sustaining factor for the entire Creation.
The honor due a tzaddik is beyond imagination. For that reason, the honor and respect due to him is beyond our imagination. For decades he was the foundation of the world, and as such the credit due to him is too enormous to comprehend. The mere burial of his body in Mitzrayim would have been such a mitigating factor that Hashem would have said, “How can I bring plagues on that land? The body of Yaakov is buried there.”
Even though it is true that the makkos served as a chance for the Mitzrim to do teshuvah, and even though the makkos are the basis of our faith, the mere presence of Yaakov’s body in Mitzrayim would have prevented them from being brought there. Since a man of his stature, a man who kept the entire universe in existence, had been buried there, it would not have been befitting to bring a plague to the land.
Secular viewpoint: man is but one occupant of the planet. This is an eye-opening example of the Torah view of the role of man and his importance. It is especially pertinent to us, as it contrasts sharply against Western culture’s almost universal disregard for the dignity of man. From the secular Western viewpoint, we are all just occupants of the planet: the birds, the fish, the sheep, the cows, and man. Some fly, some crawl, and some walk, but our ancestry is the same, and so is our purpose and destiny.
Even though we feel ourselves apart and distinct from the prevailing culture of the times, it still has an effect, often tainting our own thinking and attitudes. The real danger of a non-Torah perspective is that we begin to set our goals and aspirations according to those limiting beliefs. If the human is but an animal that walks and talks, then he is no different from the rest of the animal kingdom. How much can we expect from him? After all, the call of the wild dominates, and why should man be any different? He is but a beast, ruled by drives and passions. As such, we can’t expect much from him beyond what we would expect from a dog or horse.
The Torah’s view of man. On the other hand, from the Torah’s perspective-that man is unique in Creation-not only does he tower over it, he is the reason for it all. The cosmos itself depends on him for its very existence. This understanding allows a person to perceive his greatness and potential, to recognize what he is capable of, and to set his expectations and goals accordingly.
One of the great truisms in life is that you live up to what you expect of yourself. Only when a person understands that he has almost limitless potential can he set lofty goals, aspire to them, and reach the potential that Hashem has given him-to be a truly great individual, the reason for Creation.