This week we conclude the Book of Genesis. Jacob blesses his children. He then dies and is brought from Egypt to be buried in the land of Israel. Before dying he exacts a promise from his favored son, Joseph. “And when the time approached for Israel [Jacob] to die, he summoned his son Joseph and said to him, ‘Do me this favor, place your hand under my thigh as a pledge of your steadfast loyalty: please do not bury me in Egypt. When I lie down with my fathers, take me up from Egypt and bury me in their burial place.’” (Genesis 47:29-30)
In ancient times an agreement was often sealed by placing one’s hand under another’s thigh. Times have of course changed! Nonetheless important agreements are often sealed by a handshake or a verbal pledge. Often the most important agreements are not memorialized in writing but by these informal gestures.
In particular acts of hesed, of lovingkindness, are those that are done without even a pledge. Interestingly the Hebrew for “steadfast loyalty” is hesed v’emet and can also be translated as true kindness. Jewish tradition defines such acts as those for which no ulterior motive can be found and in particular where no reciprocal favor can even be anticipated. Tending to the needs of the dead is chief among these acts. It is a commandment, a mitzvot. In this case especially we cannot reasonably expect something in return.
According to tradition we must tend to the burial of our own loved ones ourselves. We place the shovel full of dirt into the grave, performing this final act of love for those who were dearest to us. In doing so, Judaism insists that we not pretend the loss is anything but what it is. We respond to death by taking a shovel and lifting the earth into the grave ourselves. Our loved one returns to the earth from which we are each fashioned and is covered by a blanket of earth wrapped by our own hands.
In this way we face death with lovingkindness. We do not look away. We grab hold of the shovel. We hold the hesed v’emet in our hands. And that remains our steadfast loyalty—forever.