In this week's parashah, Va-y'chi, there are three references to Jacob's wishes for burial. First, Jacob summons Joseph and says: "Place your hand under my thigh as a pledge?. When I lie down with my fathers, take me up from Egypt and bury me in their burial-place." (Genesis 47:29-30) Later, after Jacob has addressed his sons, he instructs them, saying: "I am about to be gathered to my kin. Bury me with my fathers in the cave?which is in the field of Machpelah?." (Genesis 49:29-30) And after Jacob's death, Joseph speaks to Pharaoh's court, saying: "My father made me swear saying,...'Be sure to bury me in the grave that I made ready for myself in the land of Canaan.'" (Genesis 50:5) Why were Jacob's instructions repeated three times?
When he first speaks with Joseph about his burial, Jacob says that he will "lie down with [his] fathers." This is not a reference to his burial place since the same verse specifically mentions that place. Rather, as The New JPS Commentary states, this is an idiomatic expression for death, similar to the term "will be gathered to one's kin." Jacob is not thinking of location: He is speaking about joining the fate of his father and grandfather in the legacy of the tradition they have built. He is thinking about becoming an ancestor.
When Jacob restates his request to his sons, he doesn't make them swear an oath, thus showing that it was not in their power to influence his decision. As The New JPS Commentary points out: "This is the only instance of the use of the phrase ['I am about to be gathered to my kin'] by the speaker about himself [in the Bible] and the only case in which 'kin' appears in the singular Hebrew form." What Jacob is doing here is aligning himself with his fathers and also giving his sons a shared mission. In so doing, he reunifies them--all of his sons--for after he dies. As proof, the sons feel empowered, and after Jacob's death, are finally able to approach Joseph and permanently reconcile with him.
When Joseph tells Pharaoh's court about the promise he made to his father, he changes Jacob's words. He states that his father made him swear by saying: "Be sure to...bury me in the grave that I made ready for myself [kariti]," a word that is literally understood by Rashi as "dug." The choice of this word is, at best, odd: Because one does not dig a cave, there is already a language problem. But let us take this issue one step farther: Let us accept this unusual word as a homonym for koret, as in the Yom Kippur morning Torah portion: "I make [koret] this covenant ... not with you alone." (Deuteronomy 29:13) What Jacob does on his deathbed is look toward the future, as illustrated by what comes next, namely, that Jacob's death is described without the use of the word "death." In fact, a midrash states that "Jacob, our father, did not die," although his death is referred to in the very next chapter.
Ramban suggests that the purpose of the midrashic interpretation that Jacob did not die is to show that the souls of the righteous are "bound in the bundle of life in the care of Adonai." (I Samuel 25:29) And that is exactly what Jacob did: He brought together the past, present, and future. He accomplished this by carefully choosing the words he used--even though they were about his own death--in order to connect the future generations.
Rabbi Barbara A. B. Symons is the rabbi emeritus of Temple Etz Chaim in Franklin, MA.