I have a variety of keepsakes I carry with me on any given day. They remind me of my father, my grandparents, and my kids. I wear my father’s Jewish star every time I’m going through a major life moment. It was around my neck at my rabbinic ordination, as I birthed both of my babies and other milestones I knew he would have wanted to be there for. This star is my way of carrying him with me in those moments. I also wear a piece of jewelry from each of my grandmothers on moments when I want to link my experience to generations past. Every day I wear my engagement ring, which carries a diamond from my husband Duncan’s Bubbe in it. When I have a particularly important prayer moment, I use my Zayde’s siddur from his bar mitzvah. Using these physical items connects me to these loves ones in a tangible way, creating the feeling that they are with me.
The Torah (and our forebears) understood this desire to have physical, tangible reminders of our past carried with us. The first time we see this is this week in our parshah. Parshat Vayechi, the last in the first book of the Torah (Bereshit), teaches us about the ultimate favor asked. The parshah centers around the death of Jacob, the blessings he gives to his grandchildren, and the mourning that the brothers do for their father. It then turns to focus on Joseph mending the final pieces of his relationship with his brothers, but the central focus of our text is the death of Jacob, then later the death of Joseph, and what each one asks of his loved ones before he dies.
In chapter 47, verse 29, it says:
And when the time approached for Israel (Jacob) to die, he summoned his son Joseph and said to him, ‘Do me this favor, place your hand under my thigh as a pledge of your steadfast loyalty; please do not bury me in Egypt.’
At the end of the parshah, Joseph makes a similar request of his brothers. Our forefathers valued the past and the people who came before them just as much as we do now, and they looked for ways to carry that past with them to help them face the future. Carrying Jacob’s bones out of Egypt into the promised land was more than just granting a dying man’s wish. This was the Israelite nation carrying with them a reminder of the past and a promise for the future.
We all carry with us pieces of our past, whether physically, emotionally, or both. The true value of these artifacts and heirlooms isn’t just how we remember where we’ve come from, but what we do with it.