The Virtue of Burial in Eretz Yisrael
Rabbi Mordechai Gershon
In memory of her husband, Heshie Baida z”l
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The Virtue of Burial in Eretz Yisrael
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וְאַחֲרֵי־כֵן֩ קָבַ֨ר אַבְרָהָ֜ם אֶת־שָׂרָ֣ה אִשְׁתּ֗וֹ אֶל־מְעָרַ֞ת שְׂדֵ֧ה הַמַּכְפֵּלָ֛ה עַל־פְּנֵ֥י מַמְרֵ֖א הִ֣וא חֶבְר֑וֹן בְּאֶ֖רֶץ כְּנָֽעַן:
“And afterwards, Avraham buried Sarah his wife in the cave of the field of Machpelah, facing Mamre, which is Hebron, in the land of Canaan. Genesis 23:19
“And afterwards Avraham buried Sarah, etc.” – from that time on, the Machpelah field has been the burial estate for Avraham and his descendants. This is mentioned here in order to inform us of the advantage of Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) over all other lands for the living and the dead. As well, it is mentioned in order to demonstrate God’s fulfillment of His promise to Avraham that the Land will be inheritance. [Ibn Ezra]
What Virtue is there in Burial in Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel)?
It is well known that many righteous Jews wished to be buried in Eretz Yisrael, including Yaacov’s request that he be buried with his fathers in the cave of the Me’arat Hamachpelah (field of Machpelah) [Bereishit 49:29-32]; and Yoseph, who asked his brothers to instruct their descendants to bring his bones out of Egypt for burial in Eretz Yisrael. [ibid. 50:24-25] Rashi [Shemot (Exodus) 13:19] infers from the wording of the verses that the bones of the other sons of Yaacov as well were brought up from Egypt for burial in Eretz Yisrael. Rambam, in his halachic work, writes:
"גדולי החכמים היו מוליכים מתיהם לשם, צא ולמד מיעקב אבינו ויוסף הצדיק"
The great Sages would bring their dead there (to Eretz Yisrael). Take an example, from our Patriarch Yaacov, and from Yoseph the righteous. [Hilchot Melachim (Laws of Kings) 5:11]
What is the special virtue contained within burial in Eretz Yisrael?
First Level – Strengthening Am Yisrael’s (the Nation of Israel’s) Hold on the Land
Abravanel notes the virtue of being buried in Eretz Yisrael from the perspective of the Land itself. The Pesukim (verses) [Bereishit 49:29-32] deal at length with Yaacov’s request to be buried in the Land. Upon concluding blessing his sons, Yaacov requested that they bury him in Me’arat Hamachpelah. Yaacov first mentions the exact location of the cave, and then, to preempt claims by the original owners or their descendants, he notes that the place was purchased by his grandfather Avraham. In order to preempt the potential claims of the sons of Yishmael or of Eisav that they are the legitimate inheritors of the cave, Yaacov adds that his parents were buried there and that he buried his wife Leah there too. To prevent the Canaanites’ potential claim that they are unwilling to have a cemetery for foreigners in their midst, Yaacov notes that “The purchase of the field and the cave therein was from the sons of Ḥeth,” [49:32] that is, with the full approval of all the sons of Ḥeth.
Clearly, the burial of the Am Yisrael’s dead within the Land strengthens the concept that the Land was given to the nation. A person can live in a place which is not his, as many people rent housing. Often, people immigrate to great distances for various reasons. But these are temporary, while burial is eternal. Anyone would be reluctant to bury his parents in a place which would leave him uncertain as to the fate of their bones. There is a universal desire to have family burial plots. Additionally, Jews wish to be buried along with other Jews.
In essence, burial within Eretz Yisrael constitutes a declaration that we belong to this place and will not leave it.
This is the intention of the comment of Ibn Ezra quoted above – one of the purposes of this section of the Torah is “To demonstrate God’s fulfillment of His promise to Avraham that the Land will be inheritance.” Avraham’s descendants had not yet realized their inheritance of the Land, yet the fulfillment of God’s promise was in pre-empting potential claims of the nations to keep us out of the Land. This thought is stated explicitly in Midrash Breishit Rabba [79:7]:
"ויקן את חלקת השדה אשר נטה שם אהלו וגו' במאה קשיטה, א"ר יודן בר סימון זה אחד משלשה מקומות שאין אומות העולם יכולין להונות את ישראל לומר גזולים הן בידכם ואלו הן, מערת המכפלה, ובית המקדש, וקבורתו של יוסף"
“And he bought the part of the field where he had pitched his tent from the sons of Ḥamor, the father of Shechem, for a hundred kesitas.” [Bereishit 33:19] Rabbi Yudan bar Simon says: “This is one of three places which the nations of the world cannot cheat Israel by claiming they are stolen; and these are the three: the Me’arat Hamachpelah; Beit Hamikdash (the site of the Temple) and Kever Yoseph (the Tomb of Joseph) (the field here purchased by Yaacov.”
These three places were purchased by our Patriarchs, who paid in full for each. By virtue of these three paces, Am Yisrael has a claim to the entire Land.
Second Level – Burial in Eretz Yisrael Affects Atonement for those Buried There
Chazal (Our Sages) taught an additional point about the virtue of being buried in Eretz Yisrael, this time from the perspective of the one who is buried there:
"שכל הקבור בארץ ישראל כאילו קבור תחת המזבח"
Rabbi Elazar says: Whoever is buried in the Land of Israel is deemed to be buried under the altar. [Gemara Bavli (Babylonian Talmud), Ketubot 111a]
What is the meaning of being buried under the mizbeach (altar)?
"אמרו חכמים כל השוכן בארץ ישראל עונותיו מחולין, שנאמר ובל יאמר שכן חליתי העם היושב בה נשוא עון (ישעיהו לג, כד), אפילו הלך בה ארבע אמות זוכה לחיי העולם הבא. וכן הקבור בה נתכפר לו, וכאילו המקום שהוא בו מזבח כפרה, שנאמר וכפר אדמתו עמו (דברים לב, מג)"
The Sages commented: Whoever dwells in Eretz Yisrael will have his sins forgiven as Scripture states: “The inhabitant shall not say ‘I am sick.’ The people who dwell there shall be forgiven their sins.” [Isaiah 33:24]
Even one who walks four cubits there will merit the world to come and one who is buried there receives atonement as if the place in which he is buried is an altar of atonement as the verse states: “His land will atone for His people.” [Devarim (Deuteronomy) 32:43] Hilchot Melachim (Laws of Kings), ibid.
Thus, burial in the Land affects atonement. It is possible to bring a Midrashic source for Rambam’s statement:
"אפילו ירבעם בן נבט וחביריו חיים הם לימות המשיח. ומי גרם להם להנצל מדינה של גיהנם ולחיות? קבורת ארץ ישראל"
Even Yeravam, son of Nevat, and his colleagues will live in the days of Messiah. And what caused them to be spared the judgment of Gehenom and to live? The fact that they were buried in the Land of Israel. P’sikta Rabbati 1
However, we must understand the reason that burial in the Land affects atonement.
Maharal of Prague explains that burial is a person’s return to the dust of the ground, of which Adam was created [Bereishit 2:7] Shlomo HaMelech (King Solomon) noted this and said: “All came from the dust, and all return to the dust.” [Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) 3:20]
Eretz Yisrael is the Holy Land, which is special to God. Essentially, in being reunited with the dust of the Land, there is a renewed connection and closeness to God and this affects atonement.
However, the soul disengages from the body, so how is it possible to speak of atonement for the soul? As far as the dead person, there is no apparent relevance of atonement for the lifeless physical remains.
We quoted the Midrash which notes the connection between burial in Eretz Yisrael and resurrection of the dead. The body is sanctified through the sanctity of the Land and thereby is worthy of the gift of resurrection. Even the soul can ascend within the Upper Worlds, which have numerous levels. For example, the Talmud states “A son confers privileges on a father,” [Sanhedrin 104a] which means that mitzvot performed by a son give the late father merits in heaven, as Rashba notes, the reference is to the World of Souls.
Kuzari [2:29-34] explains the great miracle of the existence of Klal Yisrael (the Nation of Israel) throughout the generations, despite the fact that in every generation there are those who arise against us to destroy us. Rabbi Yehuda haLevi (author of Kuzari) teaches us that Israel in exile has the status of dry bones, as in Ezekiel’s prophecy. [37:1-14] However, these bones during their lifetime, served as the base for the holy soul and for a life full of potential. A nation which has merited true vitality retains the power of life even at times of its oppression. For a Jew who achieved true vitality, even in death his body remains endowed with the potential power of sanctity which can be rekindled when he is resurrected. This is the reason that the corpse of a Jew conveys ritual impurity. “Planting” the body of a deceased Israelite in the ground through burial conveys an element of preparation for life after resurrection. In essence, whatever merits accrue to a person’s body are credited, on some level, to his soul as well, due to the hidden connection between body and soul which is retained even after death.
Thus, it is easier to understand how burial in Eretz Yisrael atones.
We have seen two explanations of the virtue of burial in the Land of Israel:
1) Burial is forever, therefore, one prefers to be buried in a place which belongs to him, to provide the maximum guarantee that his remains will not be removed. Thus, burial in the Land is statement that the Land belongs to Israel.
2) The Eretz Yisrael (Land of Israel) is the Holy Land, and the body of one who is buried there decomposes into the dust of the Land and is thereby sanctified. This empowers resurrection, as well as causing the soul to ascend within the Upper World.
These points underscore Ibn Ezra’s comment about “The advantage of Eretz Yisrael” over all other lands for the living and the dead.”
Reburying Righteous People in the Land of Israel.
Understanding the virtue of burial in Eretz Yisrael, we have been privileged to have the remains of righteous people brought to Israel for reburial. Among these are the remains of Ḥida, Rabbi Ḥayyim Yosef David Azulai, who was born in Jerusalem in the year 5484 (1724) and died and was buried in Livorno, Italy in 5566 (1806).When Rabbi Azulai’s remains were brought to Israel in 5720 (1960) Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu was appointed by Rabbi Yitzḥak Nissim, the Sefardi Chief Rabbi of Israel to supervise the reburial. Rabbi Eliyahu immersed himself in a mikveh before travelling to Ben Gurion international airport. When Rabbi Eliyahu learned that Rabbi Azulai’s skeleton was no longer intact, he opened the casket and asked Rabbi Azulai’s bones to rearrange themselves, which they did, rearranging themselves into a complete skeleton. Thus, Rabbi Azulai was buried in Jerusalem’s Har haMenuḥot cemetery in purity and in sanctity.
Reburial in Israel conveys atonement for and fosters closeness between those who dwell in Zion and the deceased righteous ones.
Fortunate is he who merits being in the Land of Israel, in life and after life.