Gratitude Has A Short Shelf Life

Rabbi Reuven Mann

In this week's parsha, Vayechi, we read about the death of Yaakov Avinu and the culmination of the era of the patriarchs. Yaakov raised twelve sons who were to be the leaders of the tribes which would be the foundation of the Jewish nation. He brought the family down to Egypt at the behest of Yosef. His final request of Josef was that he take an oath not to bury him in Egypt but to place him alongside his forebears in the Cave of Machpilah. Many commentators ask a simple question: why was it necessary for Yaakov to elicit an oath from Yosef? Did he not trust him? Why wasn't it sufficient for Yosef to merely agree to his father's request without the necessity of taking a vow?

The Ramban (Nachmanides) provides a very interesting answer. He explains that it was not because Yaakov lacked trust in the word of his son. He was rather concerned about the obstacles Yosef might encounter in seeking to carry out the request. It is obvious from the text that Yaakov had made a great impression on Pharaoh and his ministers. We can surmise the reasons. The Egyptians had been mesmerized by the brilliance of Yosef about whom Pharaoh had said "Can there be found such as him, a man in whom there abides the spirit of G-d?" Yosef had not only saved the country from starvation, he had made it the "breadbasket of the world." Pharaoh's wealth and power was tremendously increased as a result of Yosef's daunting wisdom and honesty. When the time came Yosef told Pharaoh that he had received all of his wisdom from the teachings of his father who was a great and righteous sage. Pharaoh was very eager to have Yosef's father and brothers come and settle in Egypt. The great awe that the Egyptians had for Yaakov can be seen in the lengthy period of national mourning which Egypt observed at his passing.

Yaakov was a realist who knew there would be a great deal of pressure to have him buried in Egypt. It would be a matter of great national prestige to have him interred on Egyptian soil as this would indicate that he had "become an Egyptian" and identified with the culture and values of that society. This, of course, is precisely what Yaakov sought to avoid. He wanted to make it clear that he had never abandoned Hashem's holy land and had been "coerced" by the Divine will to temporarily sojourn in Egypt. He wanted to be buried in the place of his father's and mother's to eternalize his role as the third patriarch of the Jewish people.

To achieve this goal he needed to secure an oath from Yosef. Temporal power fades rather quickly. With the famine over and Egypt once again prosperous Yosef no longer wielded unlimited power as in his heyday. In submitting the request to bring Yaakov back to Canaan he referred to the fact that he had sworn to do this for his father. Apparently this was a major factor in securing the agreement of Pharaoh, for in responding to Yosef he said, "Go and bury your father in accordance with your oath."

We can learn a lot from Yaakov's realistic assessment of the political fortunes of Yosef. We should never become dependent on the good will of others. Nor should we exaggerate our popularity or the extent of the gratitude we can expect from those for whom we have done great favors. As we will see, for all the good he had done, Yosef's power began to recede the moment his talents were no longer deemed to be necessary. Indeed, it did not take very long until "a new king arose who did not know Yosef." We must always act realistically and cultivate friendships and alliances, but remember that while friends come and go it is only the love of Hashem that endures forever. May we be worthy of attaining it.

Shabbat Shalom