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Parashat Vayechi 5777 — 01/14/2017

Parashat Vayechi 5777 — 01/14/2017

Bereishit 47:28-50:26

Ya’akov lived in the land of Egypt seventeen years; and the days of Ya’akov, the years of his life, were one hundred ad forty-seven years (47:28)

How beautiful are the words of our Sages z’l: the wicked even in their lifetime are called dead. The wicked, by forsaking closeness with Hashem, are forsaking real life. They may enjoy all the pleasures of this world, but their life is not life – they are living for their body, which is secondary to the life of the soul. The righteous, on the other hand, may experience hardships during their lifetime, yet their life is still called a “life” because they have retained that which is primary – the life of the soul. (Ramchal)

Probably the oldest question human beings have asked is, “What is the nature of life?” I think this question actually comes from an inborn fear of death – any being must have a survival instinct to keep it away from danger. Human beings are self-reflective – we have the ability to think about who we are and what our place in the cosmos is, and we have developed procedures to verify our perceptions and suppositions. However we generally do not have a very good idea what happens when our physical bodies cease to function.

Ramchal implies here that we cannot understand the nature of human life and physical death unless we first understand the structure of creation. Virtually all traditions understand that the physical world is a thin crust or veneer over a multilayered spiritual core. In fact, modern, Western physics has the same understanding – all of the particles out of which physical matter is made are simply modes of vibration of an underlying field, or fields, which themselves are completely abstract. The field or fields are the ultimate reality, and the physical, surface reality is just an expression of the internal dynamics of those fields as they rise and fall and interact with one another. The physical reality changes, but the underlying fields remain ever the same.

According to Jewish tradition, the ultimate, underlying basis of all creation is Gd, Who is unchanging, infinite and eternal. Gd creates all the forms and phenomena on every level, both spiritual and physical. In the case of human beings, the spiritual level is the level of the soul, and the physical aspect is the body. The body, being physical, is ever-changing and subject to the laws of nature that govern the physical world – including the laws of decay and death. The soul, on the other hand, is “a piece of Divinity from Above” and partakes in Gd’s eternity and universality. Thus, the human personality is layered, just as is creation.

Now in truth, all creatures have a spiritual essence. In animals, it is called the “animal soul” and it is what animates them. Human beings have this animal soul as well – in terms of our bodies, we are not that different from the animals. Our tradition tells us that human beings differ from animals in that we have additional layers of the soul. It is these layers that allow us to connect to Gd; it is these subtler levels of the soul that give us the ability to introspect and gain self-knowledge.

The trick is, the fact that we have these subtler, more flexible aspects to our personality gives us the ability to react based on our moral choices rather than just on instinct, as animals do. In particular, we can choose the direction of our lives – do we want to favor the body and its sensual pleasures, or do we want to favor the soul and its spiritual pleasures. Since the soul is eternal and its pleasures far outweigh those of the body, the choice would seem to be obvious. Unfortunately, as we all experience, it isn’t so simple.

The senses naturally turn outward – they are meant to connect our inner world with the outer, physical world. Therefore they naturally enjoy the pleasures of the material world – that is why they are call sensual pleasures. In order to enjoy spiritual pleasures it is necessary to withdraw the senses from their objects, at least for some time. When we do that, we allow our mind to expand away from the sensory field, away from the boundaries of perception, and we experience the levels of spiritual reality that underlie all these forms and phenomena. When we do this regularly, we begin to experience the bliss of contact with Gd, which greatly outweighs anything the material world has to offer.

A simple analogy might help. That big piece of chocolate cake looks, and is, delicious. But that wonderful taste and texture are just sensual experiences that last a few fleeting moments. The results of eating the cake are feeling miserable for quite some time. On the other hand, it takes discipline to turn away from the cake, but the reward is that we feel, and are (!), fitter and healthier for the rest of our life. We can have the immediate sensory gratification, or the “eternal” reward.

Now why would anyone choose something fleeting over something eternal? Our Sages called these people “the wicked,” but I would suggest that in most cases at least, they are merely too weak to pass up something immediate for something that might take some time to attain. Our habit is to go outward and interact with the material world. It takes time and training to change our perspective to an inner one. The only thing, in my opinion, that makes us wicked is when we give up the attempt. That is truly “abandoning” Gd – eternal life – and giving ourselves over to the boundaries of existence, which can hardly be called life in comparison.

I’d like to add another brief point based on a lecture I heard from R. Gedaliah Anemer (died 2010, Chief Rabbi of Greater Washington, DC. Here’s an obituary from the Washington Post). In our parashah we read that Ya’akov was embalmed. Now embalming is strictly prohibited under Jewish law, as it hinders the process of decomposition (Egyptian mummies have been found more or less intact after thousands of years in their tombs). R. Anemer answers as follows. There are three levels of the soul. The animal soul, as mentioned above, leaves when the body dies, as it is no longer needed. The purely spiritual soul leaves when the body dies, as it was never bound to the body in a substantial way.

But there is another level of soul, which perhaps binds the whole unit to the body, and this does not get freed up until the body decays and returns to dust. This soul is amenable to becoming more or less attached to the body during life. In the case of a great saint, like Ya’akov, this soul is already completely spiritualized during one’s lifetime on earth, and it is therefore also freed immediately upon death of the body. There is no need to wait for the body to decay for it to move on, and consequently embalming the body does not affect it negatively. For the rest of us, however, we do need to have the body decay. Now if the need is for the body to return to the dust from which it was taken, it would seem that cremation, rather than burial, would be a lot more efficient way to accomplish this. However, in Jewish Law, even pre-Nazi Holocaust, cremation is very stringently forbidden, as it is considered a disgrace to the dead. I don’t know the resolution to this.

Chazak, Chazak v’Nitchazeik!

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Reflections on This Week’s Torah Portion

by Steve Sufian

Parshat Vayechi (“And he lived”)

Jacob lives in Egypt for 17 years, his end draws near. He asks Joseph to promise he will be buried in the Holy Land, with his fathers. Joseph so swears.

Jacob blesses Joseph’s sons, the younger with his right hand.

He blesses each of his sons.

He dies and Joseph, Jacob’s family and entourage (except for the youngest children who remain in Egypt tending the flocks), accompanied by Pharoah’s ministers, bring him and bury him in the cave of Machpelah, where Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca were buried.

What can we learn from this parshah?

Two things stand out:

1.  First, the use of Jacob sometimes and Israel seems here to fit an interpretation given by aish.com: Jacob refers to Jacob’s role as a quiet Torah scholar, Israel represents his role as a warrior, a leader. When Jacob lives seventeen years in Egypt, this would mean that these were peaceful years in which he was able to enjoy doing what was most natural to him. When Israel asks Joseph to promise to bury him in the Holy Land, not in Egypt, it is as a leader, who nonetheless is subordinate to his son, who is functionally a king. By asking Joseph to deal with him in loving kindness to bury him in the Holy Land, he is raising the separation of Israel the warrior and Jacob the scholar to a unity of both in love.

Certainly we can enjoy the validation of a choice that most of us are already making: to have both the spiritual and the material aspects joyfully lively and strong in our lives.

2.  Second, when Jacob blesses his sons, he asks them to assemble and then he blesses them individually. This can be taken, and Rabbi Yehuda Berg of the Kabbalah Center takes it that way, to indicate that Jacob is emphasizing that the individual blessings will be fruitful when the sons act as an assembly, a unity, a family.

From this we can see an affirmation of what many of us already feel and act on: we are able to fulfill ourselves as individuals when we act together as a community, a family.

Baruch HaShem.