Towards the end of his productive life, Yaakov gave his final burial instructions to his prestigious son Yosef. He was not to be buried in Mitzrayim, but be transported posthumously to Eretz Yisroel to be interred in the family plot of Meoras Hamachpelah. Yaakov went to great lengths to guarantee this event, and went so far as requesting that Yosef take an oath while holding his father’s thigh.
Yaakov was not the first person to request that an oath be taken whilst holding his thigh. Avrohom had Eliezer swear in that manner that he would not take a wife for Yitzchok form the daughters of Canaan. Rashi comments, questioning why Avrohom asked Eliezer to place his hand under his -Avrohom’s- thigh:
One who swears must take with his hand an article related to a mitzvah such as a Torah scroll or Tefillin, (Shevous 38b). Circumcision was the first mitzvah directly given to Avrohom, and he had fulfilled it with pain and therefore it was dear to him; so Avrohom requested that Eliezer hold Avrohom’s thigh whilst taking the oath.
This reason above is plausible for Avrohom, but does not explain why did Yaakov requested that Yosef hold Yaakov’s thigh when promising that Yaakov be buried in the land of Canaan what significance did circumcision have for Yaakov?
Yosef and all his brothers, the Shevatim, were not left permanently in Mitzrayim, when the Jews left Egypt they took the bones of Yosef and his brothers with them. Surely they could have done the same for Yaakov, if so why did he impress on Yosef his wish to be buried immediately in Eretz Yisroel. (See Rashi)
The illustrious family of Yaakov had entered Egypt and had made it de facto their new home and country. They settled in the choicest part of the land – Goshen, and had made great inroads into it’s society and aristocracy – one of their people was the active ruler over the country. They even had a cultural influence on life in Mitzrayim, via Yosef, who enforced his new demands and impositions when disseminating food. Their position seemed secure.
Yaakov wanted to communicate subtley to all future generations that this is not our final resting place, we don’t belong here, we belong somewhere else, we belong in Eretz Yisroel. Yaakov, by requesting to be buried in Eretz Yisroel and not in the land of Egypt was making a huge statement: even if in our lifetimes we cannot make it to Eretz Yisroel at least in death we can hope to rest there. Thus Yaakov was telling his sons, grandsons and future generations, we are in exile and aspire to emigrate to Eretz Yisroel. It was for this reason that Yaakov did not wait for the final exodus to be buried in Meoras Hamachpelah, he wanted to be sure there would be an exodus and they would not assimilate and be complacent with life in Mitzrayim. He therefore requested from Yosef that he swear to this effect whilst holding onto his Mila. Circumcision, symbolizing the purity of the coming generations and the continuity of Klal Yisroel, was the Mitzvah item that Yaakov chose thereby demonstrating that his strategy was important and is a message for future generations.
Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon, affectionately called the Rambam, or Maimonides, was a Rabbi, physician, and philosopher. He was posthumously acknowledged to be one of the foremost academics in our history, and his copious work “Mishneh Torah” is a cornerstone of Jewish scholarship. He was born in Cordoba, present day Spain in 1135, and died in Eygpt 1204.
Before his death, he called his students and informed that he did not wish to be buried in Egypt and they should bury him elsewhere. “Where should we bury you?” asked the disciples. The Rambam instructed them that after he had died, and the purification rites were completed, they should put his body on the back of a camel and allow the camel to wander to wherever it pleased. They were to follow the camel, and where the camel would stop and refuse to continue is his destined burial spot, and they should bury him right there.
The disciples obeyed. They strapped his body on the back of a camel and let it roam freely. The camel began to walk on and on out of Egypt heading eastward towards Eretz Israel. On reaching Eretz Yisroel, the camel did not pause and continued to walk until coming to a halt in Tiberas near the grave of Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakai. When the accompanying followers observed that the animal stood still and would not budge any further they removed the body and buried Maimonides there.