When Jacob finished his instructions to his sons, he drew his feet into the bed and, breathing his last, he was gathered to his people. (Genesis 49:33)
Depending on how you mark time, Vayechi is either the last parasha (portion) in the book of B’reishit (Genesis), or the first parasha of 2012. It closes the story-cycle of Joseph and his brothers and includes both Jacob’s and Joseph’s deaths. Much of the parasha is taken up with Jacob’s farewell blessings to his children. In fact, three sons are chastised and two of them are actually cursed. It turns out the blessings are really prophecies about the future tribes that will descend from the “Children of Israel.”
Before he dies at age 147, Jacob asks Joseph to, “Do me this chesed v’emet …” (Gen. 37:29) and makes him swear to not bury him in Egypt, but to take his body to Canaan and bury him in the Cave of Machpelah with Abraham, Isaac, Sarah, Rebecca, and Leah. Chesed v’emet is sometimes translated as “favor.” However, the literal translation is “kindness and truth,” or as we say today, a true kindness. A true kindness is an act performed with no expectation of repayment. Rashi (an acronym for Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, the pre-eminent 11th century Jewish commentator) comments on this verse that any deed performed for someone who has died is, by definition, a true kindness.
The practical need for burial requires each Jewish community to maintain a burial society. The principle of chesed v’emet requires that society to be voluntary. Because it performs acts of true kindness, the name given to the community’s volunteer burial society through the ages is chevra kadisha, or sacred society.
Good Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom ,