Before our forefather Yaacov passed away, he instructed his son Yosef to make sure that he would not be buried in Egypt; rather, that he only be buried in the Land of Israel, in the Cave of Machpeila, where his ancestors and his wife Leah were buried.
The Egyptians held Yaacov in high esteem, because from the moment he arrived in Egypt, the famine which was projected to last an additional five years, came to a halt. Also the Nile River rose each day to irrigate the land due to Yaacov’s blessing. With Yaacov’s death, the famine resumed. Therefore, Yaacov was concerned that Pharoah and the Egyptians would turn his remains into an idol if he were to be buried in Egypt.
Yaacov instructed that only his children were to carry his coffin and he designated a specific position for each one to stand while transporting his remains.
Years later, when the Jews were traveling in the desert towards the land of Israel, Moshe instructed the tribes to dwell around the Tabernacle based on where Yaacov instructed them to stand around his coffin.
Just as Yaacov’s coffin was in the center with three tribes standing on each side, so too, when the Jews traveled in the desert, the Tabernacle was in the center and three tribes dwelled in each of the four directions surrounding the Tabernacle.
The Torah relates that after Yaacov passed away there was a 70-day mourning period that was observed in Egypt. Only then did Yaacov’s children make the trip to Israel accompanied by thousands of Egyptians.
Right before they came into Eretz Yisrael, the Torah relates that there was another 7-day mourning period in a place called Goren Ha’atad – the Granary of Thorns. Our Sages give us an insight into this strange sounding name. As the Jews were entering into Israel, all the kings of Canaan and the princes of Yishmael came to wage war with Yaacov’s family. Their hate and contention towards us was already quite evident.
However, when they saw Yosef’s glistening crown suspended on top of Yaacov’s coffin, in reverence, they put down their weapons. They all took off their crowns and placed them on top of Yaacov’s coffin. The glistening points of the 36 Canaanite kings’ crowns gave the appearance of a gathering of thorns.
But why are these crowns compared to thorns? Thorns would not seem be the first choice to describe the points of glistening crowns. Commentators explain that the Torah is capturing the true feeling behind the hateful Canaanite kings. Yes, they bestowed honor to Yaacov’s bier, however, it was a superficial show of respect. In reality they are irritable prickly thorns towards us.
Additionally, when the Jews were multiplying in Egypt, to the chagrin of Pharoh, the Torah describes the Egyptians’ disgust toward us using the word, “Yayakutzu.” Rashi explains this to mean that the Jews were worthless in the eyes of the Egyptians, just as useless thorns. According to this explanation, the Canaanite kings placed their priceless crowns on Yaacov’s coffin but they conveyed a condescendence towards the family of Yaacov as being as insignificant as a gathering of thorns.
Has anything changed over the past 3500 years?
The Torah tells us that before Yaacov’s death he blessed each of his children. Yet, when one takes a look at the words which Yaacov said to his three oldest children, it seems like a reprimand, rather than a blessing. So what does the Torah mean when it states that Yaacov blessed each of his 12 children?
An answer offered is that when a great person offers rebuke, if it is taken to heart, then it brings about the greatest of blessings, for through the lesson they learn they become better and more solid people.
Besides his children, Yaacov also blessed two of his grandchildren, Efraim and Menashe. The Torah tells us that Yaacov said, “Israel shall bless their children by saying, G-d should make you like Efraim and Menashe.” The Torah immediately states that Yaacov placed the younger Efraim before the older Menashe.
The question is, why does the Torah have to repeat that the younger brother got the better position than the older? This information was previously stated.
Igra D’Kalah explains, that the Talmud teaches us that the greatest vessel to hold onto a blessing is when peace exists among us.
Yaacov saw the awesome quality of Shalom / peace that was apparent between Efraim and Menashe. Although the younger Efraim got the preferred spot, Yaacov observed that he did not become haughty because of it. He also noticed that the older Menashe showed no jealousy toward his younger brother. Yaacov was elated by this Shalom that existed between Efraim and Menashe – for they each recognized their individual strengths. He therefore said to all of Israel, bless them like Efraim and Menashe, for if they conduct themselves with such love, brotherhood, friendliness and Shalom – they truly have it all!