Vayechi, Genesis 47:28-50:26

Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah: These are the occupants of the Cave of Machpellah, right? While this is true, the Talmud (Sotah 13a) tells of an incident that occurs in this week’s parsha. When Jacob’s sons were taking him to be buried in the Cave of Machpellah, Esau stood at the entrance and claimed that the last remaining burial spot belonged to him. The sons argued that Esau had sold his firstborn rights to Jacob. Esau challenged them to produce the deed for the sale. Naphtali ran back to fetch the deed. At this time, Chushim, the deaf son of Dan, said, “Should my grandfather Jacob lie here in this way until Naphtali returns?” at which point Chushim killed Esau, whose head then rolled into the cave and came to rest at the foot of Jacob’s burial place (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer).

This unbelievable fact that the wicked Esau’s head rests in this holy cave is explained by Rabbi Aharon Kotler (1892-1962). He says that Esau was indeed an utterly evil person; however, since his head was full of the Torah, which he was taught by none other than his father, Isaac, and grandfather Abraham, it merited burial in the cave. But how are we to understand that Esau had such high levels of Torah knowledge and was still so evil? The answer to this lies in Esau’s approach to Torah. For him, all of his Torah knowledge did not lead him to become a good person because for him it was just that – knowledge. He didn’t look to the Torah to guide the feelings of his heart and the actions of his body, and we see that they were indeed left out.

On the one hand, we see from here the great power of Torah study. for even one like Esau, who strayed far from the path of Torah, still merited to have his head buried in this holy cave because of the Torah that he was taught in his youth.

But the real lesson for us lies in understanding why Jacob was buried in the cave. We must actualize the concept that the full potency of the Torah is not only in our knowledge of it. One can have high levels of Torah knowledge and be left an Esau. Rather, one must internalize the Torah and turn to it completely to know how to feel and act. 

Mrs. Ruchoma Shain, the daughter of Rabbi Yaakov Yosef Herman, told the following story about her father. One Friday night when she was young, a policeman knocked on their door. “Mr. Herman, there is a fire in your fur store! The fire department is doing its best to extinguish the flames. It is advisable for you to get there as soon as possible.” Her father thanked the police officer for the message, but said, “It is our Sabbath. I cannot come until tomorrow night when the Sabbath ends.” The policeman was shocked. “Mr. Herman, your store is burning down! You won’t even go there to see what is happening?” Her father shook his head. She told how, on that entire Shabbos, he showed no signs of anxiety, completely enjoying the day of rest. On Saturday night, when he finally arrived at his fur store, he discovered that in fact it was the neighboring fur store that had gone up in flames, and he was contacted in error.

Rabbi Herman personified this lifestyle of harmony among his thoughts, feelings and deeds. We too must strive to live with our Torah knowledge, and to let it guide our actions and our feelings. In this way our head, our heart and our bodies will be unified in our service of God.

Rabbi Yosef Alden is a kollel rabbi with the Phoenix Community Kollel. 


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