(Gen.50:2) "And Joseph commanded the physicians to embalm his father."
Rabbi Meir Leibush ("the Malbim" 1809-1879) cannot comprehend Joseph's command that his father's body be embalmed, and declares that, "the purpose of the burial ceremony is to enable the dead person's body to turn to dust."
Jewish burial rites reflect the immense difference between the body and the soul. Ecclesiastes (12:7) describes our release from the body's chains when we pass away: "Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto G-d who gave it. According to Kabala, only when the body returns to dust naturally, can the soul return to G-d. And mortality is first mentioned in G-d's words to Adam: "for dust you are and unto dust shall you return" (Genesis 3:19).
Dust is suitable for describing the nature of the human body, which consists of dry bones and flesh. As Rabbi David Kimchi ("the Radak," 1160-1235), writes in his commentary on Genesis: "Most of the human body's components and our bones, which keep the body upright, are cold, dry materials, like dust."
Whereas burial releases the spirit from the body, allowing it to ascend and take its place in heaven, embalming perpetuates the body's physicality. Regarding the embalming of Jacob, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888), a contemporary of the Malbim, observes, "Here we see an interesting contrast between the Egyptian view, which expresses itself in the embalming of the dead, and the Jewish view. The Egyptians-embalmed the dead, so that the body would retain its uniqueness; however, they did not consider the soul unique. However, according to Judaism's view, the soul is eternal and the body has no permanent place. Our mortal body turns to dust and experiences many material incarnations."
It should be pointed out that the Hebrew wordחניטה (chanita) embalming is also used in connection with agriculture: chanitat ilanot or chanitat perot, to mean the ripening of the fruit on the tree. Whereas, according to the first usage, an illusion exists because embalming aims to preserve dead people as if they were alive, the use of the word to mean ripening of fruit refers to a process that is very real – to a life force that awakens in the tree after it has emerged from hibernation.
We are mystified by Joseph's request to embalm his father's body; after all, before he died, Jacob instructed Joseph to bury him in the tomb of the patriarchs and matriarchs in Hebron. However, Rabbi Haim Ben Attar (" the Ohr Hachaim," 1696-1743) states that, "Joseph shows great respect for his father because the embalming procedure is reserved for honorable citizens and for pharaohs. Or perhaps Joseph fears the Egyptians might misunderstand a refusal to embalm Jacob's body – that they might think he is not dead or that his corpse does not need embalming because it emits no odor? In any case, there is the distinct danger that the Egyptians might decide to worship Jacob as a god."
In the view of Rabbi Judah Hanasi (135-219 C.E.), editor of the Mishnah, however, Joseph sins when he instructs the Egyptians to embalm his father's body: "Why does Joseph die before his brothers? Because he has embalmed his father, which is against Halacha. G-d tells him: Did you not think I was capable of preserving your father, this righteous person who has served me so well? After all, I said to him, "Fear not, you worm Jacob" (Isaiah 41:14), which should be read, "Fear not the worm, O Jacob."
According to Rabbi Judah, Joseph tries to fight the normal biological process we undergo of returning to dust as our bodies decompose. Unable to part from his father, Joseph thus adopts the Egyptian custom of embalming the dead.
When people whom we hold dear are dying, we too try to thwart the Angel of Death's plans. Indeed, a very moving story appears in the Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Ketubot) concerning Rabbi Judah's last moments on earth. Seeing their master dying, his disciples declare a public fast day. They pray for G-d's compassion and proclaim, "Anyone who says that Rabbi Judah is dying will be pierced with a sword."
The rabbi's maidservant climbs to the roof of his home and prays, "Heaven wants Rabbi Judah and so does earth. May it be your will, O G-d, that the heaven will succumb to earth's will". When she observes how Rabbi Judah is suffering and in pain, she prays, "May it be your will O G-d that the earth will succumb to heaven's will." Seeing that the disciples are continuing to pray for the rabbi's revovery she takes a clay pitcher and hurls it to the ground below. The sound of the crash causes the scholars to stop praying – and just then, Rabbi Judah finally departs from this world. The students ask Bar Kappara to see whether their master has, in fact, died. When Bar Kappara discovers that Rabbi Judah is gone, he declares: "Angels and humans struggled over the Holy Ark. The angels overcame the humans, and the Holy Ark has been captured!" In Bar Kappara's eyes, therefore, Rabbi Judah is like the tablets on which the Ten Commandments were inscribed: Everyone wanted to hold on to him.
Death closes the chapter of physical life, and the living must carry on despite their grief. When Jacob dies, the responsibility for safeguarding G-d's blessing to the patriarchs is placed in the hands of his descendants, who bid farewell to his body but preserve his spirit.