This week’s parasha deals with יעקב's last words and his death. I’d like to look at what happens right after:
We can insert lots of jokes here about how Jacob was the father of the nation of Israel, and now would be their mummy.
אברבנאל goes into more detail, based on Herodotus:
But why would יעקב be mummified? As מלב״ם asks:
First, what’s wrong with mummies? There are two contradictory principles in Halacha about the dead. The first is that the body should be allowed to decay into the earth:
The second is that the corpse be given a modicum of dignity and not be placed on display:
The commentators have a number of different ways of addressing this question. One approach is that חניטה is not mummification; it is just the application of spices and perfumes:
But a process that requires רפאים would seem to be more anatomically involved. Another possible explanation is that בני ישראל were not subject to this law before the Torah was given. While I couldn’t find anyone who says that explicitly here, it seems to be implied in the אברבנאל and רמב״ן:
מלבי״ם gives a Kabbalistic answer that explains the connection of the גוף and the רוח that requires the body to decay, and that it didn’t apply to יעקב who was a צדיק. We will not deal with that in detail, but that idea (that יעקב was somehow not subject to the prohibition of embalming) is the basis for the אור החיים's explanation:
Where does the idea that יעקב didn’t actually die come from?
Almost all commentators explain this metaphorically:
But this would not explain the אור החיים, or explain why it is יעקב specifically who is called לא מת. אברבנאל brings up these problems:
So we have a non-mystical interpretation; Jacob does not die in that he lives on in the nation he started. Even when they are not “ישראל” (as we said last week, the name that indicates the complete nation) but only “יעקב” (as we are when we are in galut), we embody the legacy of יעקב and thus we can say יעקב אבינו לא מת.
The אור החיים was a Kabbalist and I suspect he meant his comment of שלא מת או שמת ולא הסריח literally, as a statement about יעקב‘s body not decaying and thus יוסף faced the danger that he would be made into an Egyptian god. But I would put a different spin on it: when we say יעקב אבינו לא מת we are talking about our embodying his values and his legacy. The Egyptian approach would have been to make him a god himself, so that burying him in Egypt (even with the intent of disinterring him and re-burying him in כנען) runs a terrible risk. יוסף felt he had to allow the Egyptians their 30 days of mourning, so יעקב’s body had to be preserved (as we said above). But the embalming process (while technically allowing the body to last to be buried in כנען) has problems:
The Netziv brings the Midrash to show that, in fact, יוסף was wrong to embalm his father:
So the embalming process, even if technically halachicly permissible, was another sign of how deeply בני ישראל were being assimilated into Egyptian culture.