Friday, 13 January, 2017 - 1:00 pm

My daughter gave me a message to phone Ian at my bank. The operator asked me what Ian’s last name was and I explained that he hadn’t left his surname. When she asked for his department, I said I didn’t know.

“There are 1,500 employees in this building, sir,” she advised me rather curtly. “You must tell me a last name.”

After a few more brusque comments, I asked her name.

“Danielle,” she said.   “And your last name?” I asked.

“Sorry,” she replied, “we don’t give out last names.”

As Jacob's demise approached, he sent for his son, Joseph, the Prime Minister of Egypt, and requested of him to be buried in the ancestral burial place in the city of Hebron, in the land of Canaan. Joseph replied, “I will do as you have said.” But this was not enough for Jacob. “Swear to me,”he persisted.

Why was Jacob so adamant that Joseph take an oath to carry out his wishes? Did he doubt Joseph’s integrity, or his promise to bury him in Israel? Years earlier, Joseph had risked his life to fulfill his father's request to see how his brothers were doing in the field. Knowing full well of his brothers’ intense hatred for him, he nonetheless did as his father asked. So why did Jacob doubt Joseph now?

Jacob certainly did not suspect Joseph of negligence in any way. He knew that Joseph would try to keep his pledge. However, as viceroy of Egypt, the superpower then, he had many duties and responsibilities. Circumstances may have arisen and delayed or even halted this operation from taking place, whether it was red tape in the city council, or an old clerk who discovered an ancient bi-law making it impossible for Joseph to transfer Jacob’s body to Israel.

Jacob understood bureaucracy. He knew that Egypt may give hundreds of excuses why not to release his body. He knew that “the nearest approach to immortality on earth is a government bureau….” Joseph may have been the powerful Prime Minister, but he was still under the jurisdiction of Pharaoh, who wanted Jacob buried in Egypt.

Jacob knew the infamous power of government committees. “A committee is a group of people who individually can do nothing, but as a group decide that nothing can be done.” That was the purpose of the oath he made Joseph take. The oath obligated Joseph to do what may seem to be impossible, if such a situation would arise. If Joseph would have told Jacob, “I will do it,” he would have certainly tried… But when circumstances rose beyond his control—as indeed they did—he may have given up. Having him swear was the game changer.

When someone swears he will do something, his commitment to the matter is transformed from merely trying to do it, to a far deeper commitment to get the job done, no matter what. Jacob knew that the oath would infuse Joseph with a heightened sense of inspiration and vigor so that he would fulfill his father’s last wish despite any obstacles. He would take on “city hall” and get the job done. And he did.

We all have tendencies to claim that certain things are impossible. We often say, “I would love to participate, I would love to attend Torah classes, I would love to come to Shul, to give more charity, to work on my marriage, to get into shape, to say I am sorry, to kosher my kitchen, to start keeping Shabbat, to work on my temper… But you know it is impossible now. I have prior arrangements. The weather is not that good, I am too tired from work, or my wife needs me at home. I am not feeling well. My partner will never agree. Global Warming is killing me, the situation in the Middle East is paralyzing me, etc.”

But so often it is not that it is impossible, it is that we are not fully committed to it. It is that we do not perceive it as a top priority worth fighting for. We say, I will try, and we might mean it, but we do not put ourselves on the line. Hence we tend to neglect it or just forget it.

It’s like the man who went to see Dr. Moskowitz.

"You see,” he said, “I am getting forgetful.  I have too many senior moments, and it’s getting worse. I'm never sure where I parked my car; it takes me 20 minutes to find it in the parking lot. I don’t know if I’ve already replied to a letter, or where I'm going when I leave the house, or what I'm going to do once I get there…. I really need your help and advice. What do you suggest?”

The doctor thought for a moment, then answered in his kindest tones: "Pay me in advance."

The power of an oath was especially seen when it came to Joseph standing up to Pharaoh about maintaining Jacob’s right to be buried in his homeland, in his ancestral plot in Hebron. We often feel paralyzed and fearful. We bend to the Pharaohs of each generation; we become timid, apologetic, and insecure. How can we stand up to the UN, to the State Department, to the world?

Jacob wanted to teach Joseph that when it comes to the rights of the Jewish people over Hebron and the Holy Land in general, he must be empowered like a lion. We, Jacob’s sons, derive the same lessons. We must speak with passion and determination, with every fiber of our soul. Our conviction must be unwavering, and our fortitude everlasting. With this inner strength and confidence, we will be able to allow Jacob to reclaim his land.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky

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