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Parashat Vayechi 5772 – 01/04/2012

Parashat Vayechi

Submitted by
Robert Rabinoff

In honor of the Jubilee of my Bar Mitzvah.  (Now you know how old I am <g>.)


When Jacob finished instructing his sons he drew his feet to the bed; he expired and was gathered to his people.  (49:33)

Rav Nachman said to Rav Yitzchak: “So said Rabbi Jochanan: Our father Jacob did not die.”

Asked Rav Yitzchak: “Was it for no reason that the eulogizers eulogized, the embalmers embalmed and the buriers buried?” (Taanit 5b, translation

This explains why we do not find in the Torah that Jacob’s sons eulogized their father. Only the Egyptians did so — “A profound mourning for Egypt” (Gen. 50:11). Jacob had assisted the Egyptians by bringing the years of famine to an early end. From the standpoint of the Egyptians, Jacob had died, and the connection of his soul to these matters was severed. Therefore, the Egyptians had reason to mourn. But Jacob’s sons, who knew that Jacob was still alive with them, had no need to eulogize their father. (R. Avraham Yitzchak haKohen Kook, adapted by R. Chanan Morrison from Midbar Shur, pp. 242-251


The linguistic basis of this discussion is the Torah’s expression that Ya’akov Avinu expired (vayigva); unlike even his fathers Avraham and Yitzchak, Torah nowhere states that he died (vayamat).  Therefore, our Sages conclude that in fact he did not die.


Now this cannot be taken as a purely figurative way of speaking, in the sense that The righteous are considered “alive” even in death; the wicked are considered “dead” even while alive. (Berachot 18a-b), for in that case we would have to say that Avraham and Yitzchak, and legions of other tzaddikim throughout the millennia also did not die; rather, there is something special about Ya’akov that he is singled out by both Torah and Talmud as being alive more than just spiritually.  In addition, we cannot be speaking about the soul, for everyone’s soul is immortal – it is the “portion of Gd on High” that is implanted within each one of us, and as such it has the qualities of unboundedness and immortality.  Also, although I haven’t seen this mentioned in the commentaries I have read, there must also be some difference between Ya’akov Avinu and the two instances in Torah (Enoch in Bereishit and Eliyahu haNavi [Elijah the Prophet] in Kings) where a person is described as not even expiring, but rather ascending directly and bodily to heaven.


Fifty years ago as a Bar Mitzvah boy in an assimilated household, I didn’t understand this Torah portion.  Fifty years later, I don’t understand the portion on a much more profound level.  I would like to speculate on this issue of Ya’akov Avinu’s immortality.


We have discussed on numerous occasions that Creation begins with Gd, alone, infinite, unbounded, having no parts, “contracting within Himself” to create a “space” where the finite can exist.  Inside this space finite values expand and contract, interact and ramify, giving rise to all the forms and phenomena that we see, and of course many that we don’t see as well.  The purpose of all this activity is to form structures that most perfectly reflect Gd’s perfection.  These structures can be structures of human awareness, or they can be physical structures, or they can be social structures.  Our Tradition tells us that one can, by refining all aspects of his personality, expand his awareness to infinite value and “cling” to Gd; that is, come into an intimate relationship with Gd, as close as is possible for a finite creature.  Similarly, Torah gives us a blueprint for creating a social structure that is perfectly good and harmonious, where each member of the body politic is doing his or her part to create a superfluid society, one that supports the growth of every member to his or her highest potential.


When one comes to physical structures the situation gets a bit more interesting.  Closed physical systems are subject to the law of Entropy, the law of decay.  On the other hand, open physical systems, that is, those that exchange energy and material with their environments, can make transitions to higher levels of order and complexity, but the total entropy of the open system plus the environment with which it is exchanging matter and energy, increases.  (An example: the once-quiescent air over a hot stove forms convection cells – a level of order greater than before the stove was lit.  But the total entropy of air + stove increases.)  Local order is bought at the price of global disorder.


Based on this physical understanding however, we might speculate that when a physical system is opened up to the ultimate basis of all life, Gd, Who is impervious to disorder and entropy, the local increase in order caused by the influx of Divine energy is not accompanied by an increase in disorder elsewhere.  And the larger the flow of Gd’s Light, the faster the evolution and the greater the level of order in the system.  Of course, to be able to sustain a greater flow of Gd’s energy, the system has to be more pure – any impurity or imperfection in the system will cause this energy flow to break down into destructive turbulence, as we saw in the case of Nadav and Avihu, Aharon’s sons, in Parashat Shemini.


Perhaps Torah is telling us that Ya’akov Avinu had purified himself to such a level that not only did his mind and soul perfectly reflect Gd’s perfection (as our Sages express it, an image of Ya’akov’s face is engraved in Gd’s Throne), but even his body, in both structure and function, was so perfectly aligned with Gd’s ideal vision of the human body that it, too, was no longer subject to death and decay – perhaps like Adam before he ate from the forbidden tree.  In some sense his body, like his soul, had attained immortality.


How does this square with the fact that Yosef had Ya’akov’s body embalmed, and eventually interred in the Cave of Machpelah?  The answer is, I don’t know.  But the Sages record a tradition in the Midrash: when Ya’akov was to be interred in the Cave of Machpelah, Esau came to dispute his rights to the sepulcher.  Enraged at the slight to his grandfather’s honor, Chushim, the son of Dan, took a club and beat Esau over the head so hard that his eyes popped out and rolled to the foot of Ya’akov’s bier.  Ya’akov then opened his own eyes and laughed.