In an era when media and entertainment are strongly integrated into personal lives, many people feel as if they have a connection to the celebrities they most admire. It is human nature to be drawn to people we relate to or to those who we feel have made an impact on our lives, even when we do not actually know them. This seemingly modern phenomenon can, perhaps, help one understand how it was that the people of Egypt mourned the passing of Jacob for 70 days.
When Jacob came to Egypt, he was already an old man. He had children and grandchildren, and, as far one can tell from the text of the Torah, his 17 years in Egypt do not seem to have been active. On his deathbed, Jacob had his sons swear that they would bury him in Hebron, where Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca and Leah were buried.
After Jacob’s passing, Joseph ordered his father embalmed. The Torah records the burial and the mourning: “And 40 days were completed for him, for so are the days of embalming completed, and the Egyptians wept over him for seventy days...So Joseph went up [to the Land of Canaan] to bury his father, and all of Pharaoh’s servants, the elders of his house and all the elders of the land of Egypt went up with him” (Genesis 50:3,7).
One could think that Egyptian people’s outpouring of emotion for 70 days was to show respect for Joseph, who was second only to Pharaoh. But, the Midrash explains that it was “because a blessing had come to them when he [Jacob] arrived, the famine ended and the waters of the Nile increased” (Rashi on Genesis 50:3).
Jacob was not a celebrity. He was more than that. Like his grandfather Abraham, whom God blessed the “He who blesses you shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3), Jacob was a source of blessing. Most of Egypt did not know Jacob, but they were aware of him, of who he was and of what he meant to their country. When Jacob passed away, it affected them all profoundly, and thus they mourned him for 70 days.
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