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Parashat Vayechi 5775 — 12/31/2014

Parashat Vayechi 5775 — 12/31/2014

Our Father Ya’akov Did Not Die

Ya’akov Avinu enjoys a very special place in the pantheon of our forebears.  He is the one who was renamed Israel, from which we get our name as a people.  His is the visage that is carved into Gd’s Throne of Glory. And Ya’akov is the only one whose passing from the world is not described as “death.”  Rather, Torah says “he expired” (vayigvah), whereas with Avraham and Yitzchak it says “and he expired and he died” (vayigvah vayamat).  Even Moshe Rabbeinu’s passing is described as “death” (vayamat).  Our Rabbis pick up on this nuance; R. Yochanan comments (Ta’anit 5b) “Our father Ya’akov never died.”  There are two questions: First, if Ya’akov didn’t die, why was his body embalmed, carried back to the Land of Israel, and buried in the Cave of Machpelah? (ibid)  And second, if the statement refers to the soul, we already know the soul is eternal and doesn’t die, so there is nothing unique about Ya’akov in this respect.

Rav Kook explains that there is a difference between “expiring” and “dying.”  Expiring refers to the cessation of bodily functioning at the end of life.  This is a natural process, governed by the tendency of systems to move to a state of greater disorder (Second Law of Thermodynamics).  Thus Ya’akov, who was to be mourned for 70 days in Egypt, then carried to the Land of Israel, was embalmed to arrest the process of decay.  Note that many traditions have stories of saints whose purity was such that their bodies were removed from the natural process of decay, and in fact there is an opinion in the Midrash that Ya’akov would not have needed to be embalmed; Yosef had it done to avoid problems in returning the body to the Land of Israel, reasoning that had the Egyptians seen that the body didn’t decay they would have insisted on keeping it in Egypt as an object of veneration.

“Dying” (mitah), on the other hand, has more to do with the soul than the body.  The soul is placed in a physical body in order to allow it to infuse its own perfection into the physical world.  The difficulty with this arrangement is that contact with the physical “distracts” the soul, as it were, from its infinite nature and attaches it to the physical, limited world.  Of course this began when Eve saw that the forbidden tree was a delight to the eyes and desirable to eat – that is, the physical world, with all its pleasurable sensations, drags the soul down into a situation where it “forgets,” as it were, who and what it really is.  It is our job to break those attachments and restore our souls to their pristine, original state.  Unfortunately, that is a tall order.  Death is what finally breaks those attachments.  Someone who has not spent his life freeing himself – that is, his soul – from attachment to the physical, has a more difficult time leaving his body when that time comes.  Someone who has transcended the physical completely simply sheds the body as easily as one slips out of an overcoat upon returning home.

Now to a certain extent, in order to live in the physical world and to accomplish what we’re meant to accomplish, we have to make our peace with it.  In order to fulfill the mitzvot of Pesach, for example, we have to eat and we should enjoy what we’re eating.  Having a feast on Erev Yom Kippur is as much a mitzvah as fasting on Yom Kippur itself.  And we obviously get physical pleasure from attempting to procreate, and much emotional pleasure when we’re successful.  Nonetheless, they leave some attachment, and that attachment needs to be purged for the soul to be able to live as it’s supposed to live.  Obviously, if the action itself is not mitzvah-based, but rather is physical-pleasure-seeking in and of itself, then this purging is more difficult, for it is the entirety of the experience that must be purged, rather than just some temporary aspect of it.

Rav Kook explains that herein lies the difference between Ya’akov and even his illustrious father and grandfather.  Avraham fathered Yishmael who had to be “purged” from the Patriarchal household lest he pollute the atmosphere for Yitzchak, and Yitzchak fathered Esav, and even favored him over Ya’akov.  Ya’akov, on the other hand had 12 sons who were all righteous individuals.  No purging was necessary in his case, so he was able to expire, without the additional factor of “death.”  There was no imperfection in him that attached him to the physical world, so he didn’t need to die to remove that attachment.  I might point out that although both Aharon and Moshe Rabbeinu also both had transcended their attachments to the physical, and both are described in the Rabbinic tradition as having died “by a kiss” (i.e.  their souls slipped out of their bodies “like pulling a hair out of milk”), nonetheless Torah describes them as having died.  And while one can point to imperfections in their lives (Aharon made the Golden Calf and Moshe struck the rock instead of speaking to it), there are also areas where the Sages tell us that Ya’akov acted improperly as well (getting angry at Rachel when she expresses her pain at not having any children).  Moshe is the greatest of the prophets, so I don’t know how to resolve this question.

Death entered the world when Adam and Eve at from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.  At that point Good and Evil got mixed together, nothing was as clear as black and white any more, and no longer could the soul count on the body to do its bidding.  It’s the job of every person to reverse this calamity in within himself, by bringing his mind into contact with its infinite basis again and again until the allure of the finite, physical world, simply fades before the bliss of being without boundaries, free of limitations.  When we do this, and more important, when we as a Jewish people can do this, then Gd will banish death from the world for good.  It will simply be unnecessary any more!

The Sacks Haggadah

Essay 12: The Sages in B’nei B’rak

The Haggadah contains a brief paragraph regarding 5 Sages who met in B’nei B’rak (now a suburb of Tel Aviv, but then the home of R. Akiva) and spoke of the Exodus from Egypt until their students came in and told them that the time for the morning Sh’ma had arrived.  Have you ever wondered what that was all about?  Of course you did!  It’s almost like a big non sequitur right in the middle of the Haggadah!

R. Sacks explains: The five Sages included two who held that the halachah allows the Paschal sacrifice to be eaten, and therefore for the Seder to be prolonged, till dawn (R. Akiva and R. Yehoshua), and two who held that it could only go on till midnight (R. Elazar ben Azaria and R. Eliezer).  Unfortunately, this was only one of the many disputes at that time that threatened the unity of the Jewish people, who had just seen their spiritual and political capital destroyed by the Romans.  Significantly, one of the Sages who was not present was Rabban Gamliel, who had been temporarily deposed from his position as nasi (President) of the Sanhedrin for harshly quashing any dissent or disputes, in the name of unity.

The situation was fraught.  What did R. Akiva and R. Yehoshua do?  They simply kept R. Elazar ben Azaria and R. Eliezer so wrapped up in the conversation that they didn’t notice as midnight passed, or the wee hours of the morning, until they had to be reminded that it was dawn and the time for the morning prayers had come.  They had forged a unified ruling, not by quashing dissent, but by charming it away!

How relevant is this understanding for us today!  In the US our political system is hopelessly polarized to the extent that opponents try to smear and defame their opponents and civil discourse has virtually departed the public arena.  In the Jewish world the situation is similar, with various competing groups and subgroups taking a “my way or the highway” approach to Jewish law and practice.  And of course, all in the name of Heaven.  I don’t think anyone has ever caused anybody else to change their position on some issue by shouting more loudly.  If you can only bring people over to your way of thinking at the point of a gun (literally or figuratively) then your way of thinking doesn’t have anything intrinsic to recommend it, does it?  Until we can learn to treat each other with respect and kindness, we can hardly ask others to treat us that way.  We all need to take a deep breath and observe how we treat one another, what is our tone of voice when we speak with others, what kind of words do we use, are we harsh or kind and gentle, do we hurt or do we heal, do we really listen to our interlocutor or are we just planning our next snide remark?  If everyone would spend 15 minutes a day becoming more conscious of the way he speaks and relates to others, we would see an immediate improvement in the entire world situation.  We can’t make “everyone” do this, but we can start with ourselves.