Parashat Vayechi begins with Yaakov’s summoning his beloved son, Yosef, and having him vow that he would bring Yaakov’s remains to Canaan for burial, rather than burying him in Egypt. Indeed, the Torah tells later that Yosef and his brother faithfully obeyed Yaakov’s request, and they carried his remains to Canaan and interred them in Chevron, in the Makhpeila Cave where Avraham, Sara, Yitzchak, Rivka and Leah were buried.
Many commentators raised the question of why Yaakov found it necessary to impose an oath on Yosef. As the Ramban writes, “Yaakov did not suspect his righteous, beloved son that he would disobey his father’s command…” Yaakov undoubtedly trusted Yosef, so why did he have Yosef promise on oath to fulfill his request?
The Ramban, among others, explains that the oath was necessary due to the fears that Pharaoh might be reluctant to permit Yosef to leave Egypt for this purpose, or might insist on having Yaakov – a distinguished figure – buried in his country. By imposing an oath, the Ramban explains, Yaakov made it less likely for Pharaoh to refuse to grant Yosef permission to bury Yaakov in his homeland.
However, the Ramban adds a surprising remark at the conclusion of his discussion of this topic: “Yosef, too, would need to make a great effort in this regard because of the oath.” After stating that Yaakov clearly did not suspect that Yosef would not fulfill his wish, the Ramban then writes that the oath ensured that Yosef would make a greater effort to obey his request if there was opposition from Pharaoh. At first glance, this remark directly contradicts the Ramban’s presumption expressed at the outset of his discussion – that Yaakov clearly did not suspect that Yosef would disobey his request. How could the Ramban now write that the oath was necessary to motivate Yosef to comply?
Apparently, as many have noted, even when we are sincerely committed, and want to do the right thing, our natural lazy instincts will dissuade us from doing so when we confront an obstacle, when practical complications arise. We genuinely want to meet our obligations, but we are not necessarily willing to make the extra effort, to “go the extra mile,” to overcome the hurdles that stand in the way. Yaakov had no doubt that Yosef would very much want to grant his wish, but even so, he had concerns about whether Yosef – as much as Yosef truly loved him, and as loyal as he was to him – would make the effort to convince Pharaoh to allow it if Pharaoh would refuse, and so he had Yosef make an oath. Sincerity alone does not always suffice as a motivator for hard work, and so Yosef’s loyalty to his father did not necessarily guarantee that he would put in the effort to fulfill Yaakov’s wish if this became a difficult challenge.
We need to try to muster passion and drive, to remind ourselves of the central importance of mitzvot in our lives, so that we are not simply sincerely committed to fulfilling them, but motivated to fulfill them even in the face of the challenges that arise, and even when this entails a great deal of work, effort and sacrifice.