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Excuses, excuses

Vayechi (Genesis 47:28-50:26 )

by Rabbi Boruch Leff

When we really want to accomplish something, nothing can stand in our way.

Do you trust your best friend? What about your son? I hope you answered in the affirmative. Then, why doesn't Jacob seem to trust Joseph with burying him in Ma'arat HaMachpaila -- the Cave of the Patriarchs -- in Hebron, in this week's Torah portion? Let's explore the issue.

Right in the beginning of the Parsha (47:29), we find Jacob feeling close to death and making plans for his burial. He calls for Joseph and makes him state that Jacob would not be buried in Egypt but would be buried in Hebron with Abraham and Isaac.

Joseph readily agrees. But that is not enough for Jacob. He makes Joseph swear on it, which Joseph does.

Why wasn't Joseph's word enough? Besides being Jacob's trusted son, Joseph was a supremely righteous individual. Would he violate his father's command? Why would Jacob feel the need to make Joseph swear?

We find apparent further worry from Jacob later in the story. After Jacob finishes blessing his sons, he again tells all of his sons that they should bury him in Hebron (49:29). Didn't Jacob already make Joseph swear that he would carry it out? Why command again to bury him in Hebron?

The explanation is that Jacob was afraid of excuses, even valid ones. Sure, he knew that Joseph would not willingly fail to carry out Jacob's wishes, but there may be a legitimate reason why Joseph could not fulfill it. In fact, Jacob may have reasoned that Pharaoh may not want to have Jacob buried outside of Egypt. Since Jacob was a famous personality, he would want Jacob's Tomb to be in Egypt. Therefore, Pharaoh may not allow Joseph to bring Jacob's body to Israel. So, Jacob had Joseph swear, not because he didn't trust Joseph, but because he felt that Pharaoh may let Joseph do it if Joseph can tell Pharaoh that he swore on the issue.

Indeed, we find that when Joseph asks Pharaoh to take Jacob's body to Israel, Pharaoh only agrees based on the oath: Pharaoh said, 'Go up and bury your father since you swore to him' (Genesis 50:6).

This is also why Jacob mentioned his burial request to all of the brothers, not only to Joseph. If for some reason Joseph were unable to carry out the request due to his loyalties to Pharaoh, perhaps the other brothers would somehow find a way to make it work.

Jacob feared that excuses or rationalizations would prevent his wishes from being performed. Jacob desperately desired to be buried with his fathers in Hebron and used all avenues available to make it happen. He had to be buried in Hebron. Nothing could prevent it. 'No, it won't work' was not part of his vocabulary.

We all know that when we really want to accomplish something, nothing can stand in our way. If I am a diehard sports fan and the big championship is being played, I must find a way to get tickets to the game. I'll wait on line for 24 hours straight if I have to but I will get the tickets. And if my car breaks down then I'll walk. There will be no room for excuses.

Yes, there's that old cliche, 'Where there's a will, there's a way.' The question though is: what does our will really want? Can we honestly say that we are not studying Torah, praying, or performing acts of kindness well because we are too tired or too busy? Or is it that we don't have a strong will in these spiritual areas? Do we cave in when faced with even a slight obstacle or do we carry on with an 'It has to work at all costs' attitude?

John unfortunately became wrapped up in gambling. When he came to his senses and realized that he was destroying his soul as well as his life, he desperately needed to develop a plan to find a way that would guarantee that he never gamble again. He would not accept excuses for himself. He decided that he would make a vow to God to stop gambling, and that if he ever gambles, God should come and deal with him. That's a pretty heavy course of behavior and definitely not what everyone should do, but we can say one thing about this man: He definitely had a strong spiritual will!

What is our excuse factor in our lives? How much do we really desire spiritual growth? How often do we let excuses reign?

We must always remember what a wise man once said: 'Do or Do not. There is no try.'

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