JACOB NEVER DIED
December 26, 2017
Rabbi H. Greenberg in #1099, Parsha Thought, VaYechi

AN ANOMALOUS NAME

The Book of B’Reishis ends with the parsha VaYechi.

Our Sages teach that “everything follows the end.” The literal translation is that “everything follows the seal.” A seal is put on something that needs to be protected and preserved. This parsha, then, is what preserves the message and inspiration of all the preceding sections of B’Reishis.

To understand what this parsha contributes to all of the preceding ones, we have to reflect on its name: VaYechi [Yaakov]-And [Jacob] lived.”

Based on its name, one would have expected to read about Jacob’s life in this parsha. However, the entire parsha is about the events that relate to the end of his life, his funeral, and the events that occurred after his funeral.

Why would the parsha be named VaYechi when it is about the opposite of life?

The answer can be found in a well-known statement of our Talmudic Sages (Taanis 5b) that, in truth, Jacob did not really die. The fact that he was buried and his life eulogized was due to their perception that he had died. But in actuality, he still lives. The Talmud derives the idea of Jacob’s immortality by considering the lives of his children: “Just as his children are alive so too is he alive.”

We can now reconcile the name of the parsha, which highlights Jacob’s life, with its content, which ostensibly deals with his passing. In truth, Jacob never really died. Jacob lived on. Even in what seems to be his death, the Torah declares: “And Jacob lived!”

Rashi’s commentary on the Torah supports the conclusion that Jacob never died by highlighting the absence of the words “and he died.” This, Rashi says, is because, as the Talmud states, “Jacob, our father, did not die.”

CONTRADICTION?

The premise that Jacob did not really die seems to be contradicted by a statement in the beginning of the parsha: “The time approached for Israel to die…”

Moreover, Rashi’s opening comment on this parsha seems to negate the notion that Jacob/Israel didn’t die.

Rashi comments on an anomaly in the Torah Scroll. He notes that there is no separation between the end of the preceding parsha and the beginning of VaYechi:

“Why is this passage closed? Because once our forefather Jacob passed away, the eyes and the heart of Israel were closed because of the suffering of the enslavement, for the Egyptians began to enslave them.”

In this statement, Rashi suggests that Jacob, in fact, passed away with tragic results; the Egyptian enslavement of Israel.

Commentators have raised another question:

Rashi states in a different comment (Exodus 6:16) that the Egyptian bondage did not begin until all of Jacob’s sons had passed on. Yet, here he asserts that it began right after Jacob’s passing.

The key to reconciling these two apparent contradictions is to focus on the Talmud’s rationale for asserting that Jacob never died:

       “Just like his children are alive so is he alive.”

This means that while Jacob’s immortality is a reality, the recognition of that reality is not a fixed outcome.

When we look at someone or an object through tainted lenses we see a distorted image of that person or object.

When the children of Jacob, along with the Egyptians, saw him through their tainted vision, they saw him appear to leave this world. Based on their perception they buried him and eulogized him. As a result, their lives began to descend into the Egyptian enslavement.

Exile is defined not by reality but by the perception of that reality. Conversely, Redemption occurs when we awaken from our dream-like view of reality. When we live in a world of “virtual” reality we are, by definition, in a state of exile.

Thus, Rashi aptly states that when Jacob passed away the eyes and hearts of the Jewish people became closed. Rashi is not referring to the actual facts of Jacob’s life here. Rather, he adopts the distorted lenses of his children. Jacob in truth did not pass away; it was they who projected their own mortality on him. Thus, it was only in the perception of his children that he passed away.

WHY ISRAEL AND NOT JACOB?

Thus, the Torah refers to “the time approached for Israel to die.” To whom was the Torah referring? Why does it refer to him as Israel rather than Jacob, which the Torah uses more frequently? Indeed, in the preceding verse, the Torah mentions him by the name Jacob twice.

One possible answer is that the name Israel relates not only to Jacob the person, but to him and his progeny. When the Torah refers to Israel’s days as nearing death it tells us that, while Jacob himself never died, his children saw him that way because they projected their own mortality on him.

In reality then, it was not Jacob who was dying but rather his children.

WHY “DAYS” IN THE PLURAL?

This explanation can also help us answer another question raised by the Zohar:

The literal translation of the above-cited verse is: “The days of Israel’s death were approaching.” The Zohar asks, “It should have written ’And the day of Israel’s death was approaching.’ How many days does it take for one to die? Leaving this world occurs in but one moment and in one instant.”

The Zohar answers that when a righteous person passes away, he comes before G-d with all of his days. Every day of a tzaddik’s life is filled with virtue; the days serve as the garments in which one greets G-d in the next world. Thus, the Torah speaks of Jacob’s days in the plural because every day of his life was present at the time of his passing.

Another answer to the Zohar’s question is given in the work Minchas Yitzchak. Jacob was the synthesis of our Patriarchs Abraham and Isaac. Thus, when he passed away, so did they.

However, if we interpret the word Israel here as meaning the children of Jacob, we can readily appreciate why the Torah uses the plural of “days.” The Torah is not referring to the actual passing of Jacob, for that did not happen. Rather, the Torah is referring to the vicarious passing of Jacob, through the passing on of his progeny. When they viewed Jacob, they saw him as passing away. In truth, they were describing their own demise and projecting it on to their father, Jacob.

As a result of their projection of their own decline and mortality on Jacob, they became vulnerable to Egyptian enslavement.

TWO FORMS OF ENSLAVEMENT

This answers the question posed above about Rashi seeming to contradict himself when he says that Jacob’s passing was followed by the enslavement of his children, when he states elsewhere that the enslavement only happened after his children died.

The answer comes when we see that enslavement comes in two forms.

The first stage of exile is when we detach ourselves from Divine reality and insist on seeing things through the prism of our own frailties and limitations.

This is the meaning of the word Mitzraim: straits and confinement.

In the first phase of exile, we confine ourselves in a straight-jacket by insisting on projecting our own distorted vision onto the canvas of Divine reality.

Once we have enslaved ourselves spiritually, we can be taken as slaves by external forces.

Thus, when Jacob died in their eyes and hearts, it represented the first phase of their enslavement. This initial state of exile and enslavement led to the subsequent physical bondage.

Moreover, when Rashi stated that the bondage began after Jacob’s children died it does not contradict what he says here, that it began after Jacob died. Both statements essentially say the same thing. Jacob’s death only occurred in the eyes and hearts of his children, who projected their own demise onto him.

In effect, the reference to Jacob’s death actually refers to the death of his children that they imputed to Jacob.

APPLICATION OF THE MESSAGE THAT JACOB DID NOT DIE

This message of mortality provides us with a powerful and practical understanding of the dynamics of Galus-exile and Geula-Redemption.

Galus mentality, wherein virtual reality is perceived as true reality, can manifest itself in many ways.

One way is to imagine that there are intrinsic obstacles to block a Jew from observing the mitzvahs of Judaism. That mindset is a product of seeing the world through the eyes of Galus and not through the eyes of Torah, G-d’s own way of looking at the world.

When viewing reality through the Torah’s perspective, there is no dichotomy between Judaism and the physical world.

One example is the notion that our livelihood depends on bending some of the Torah’s demands, such as truth or Shabbos observance. In reality, there is no way to conduct a successful business based on a lack of integrity. Conversely, there is no way that doing business honestly will lead to ruin.

It is also untenable to think that proper Sabbath observance prevents us from making a living. To entertain that thought is to be mired in a dichotomous Galus.

Redemption is when we see that “Jacob did not die,” the perception of reality notwithstanding. When we start to live our own lives to the fullest, by seeing the Divine in everything and seeing everything from a Divine perspective, we are free of Galus; our eyes and hearts are open and liberated.

By ending the Book of B’Reishis with the message of VaYechi, the Torah guarantees that the contributions of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs do not become sullied and tainted by our Galus mentality. VaYechi is thus the seal of B’Reishis; it keeps and preserves all its timeless messages.

Similarly, when we invoke the message of “VaYechi,” when we declare Yechi to Moshiach, we ignite his spark and empower him to fulfil his role in bringing about our true and complete Redemption, which will lead to the period when we will enjoy eternal life!

Article originally appeared on Beis Moshiach Magazine (http://beismoshiachmagazine.org/).
See website for complete article licensing information.