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Shabbat Parashat Vayechi| 5764
His Spirit Lives OnHarav Moshe Ehrenreich
It certainly seems like Ya’akov died. In the opening of our parasha, it says, “And the days of Yisrael neared death” (Bereishit 47:29). Later, the Torah says: “Yisrael said to Yosef, ‘behold I am dying’ ” (ibid. 48:21). We even have sources after the fact such as: “The doctors embalmed Yisrael” (ibid. 50:2). However, the situation suddenly becomes confusing, when attempting to explain the pasuk: “Ya’akv completed instructing his sons, and he gathered his legs to the bed, and he expired and was gathered to his nation (vayigva vayeiasef el amuv- a phrase that usually refers to death)” (ibid. 49:33). Rashi points out that the pasuk doesn’t mention death, and Chazal say that Ya’akov did not die. The Ramban explains Chazal’s statement, saying that “the souls of tzaddikim are bound up in the bond of life.”
The source in Chazal is the gemara in Ta’anit 5b: “R. Yochanan said: ‘Ya’akov Avinu did not die.’ They asked him: ‘Was it for nothing that they eulogized him, embalmed him, and buried him?’ He responded: ‘I learn a pasuk, which says: ‘Fear not my servant Ya’akov, said Hashem, and do not fear, Yisrael, for behold I will save you from your distant place and your offspring from the land of their captivity’ (Yirmiya 30:10). Just as his offspring is living, so too, he is living.’” The Maharsha (ad loc.) points out that the lack of death refers to spiritual death. The gemara had to stress this specifically in reference to Ya’akov since he died outside of Eretz Yisrael, which is known as “the land of the living.” Therefore one could mistakenly think that Ya’akov had died spiritually, so the gemara proves that he too did not die spiritually, because it is as if he died in Eretz Yisrael. We still need to explain the meaning here of life and death and why certain p’sukim douse the term death in reference to Ya’akov.
Rav Charlop (Mei Marom VIII, 107) picks up on the fact that every time the Torah mentions death in regard to Ya’akov, it refers to him as “Yisrael.” The pasuk of “vayigva vayeiasef el amuv,”on the other hand, calls him Ya’akov. This teaches us that Ya’akov’s death was only in regard to the element of Yisrael within his persona. What is the difference between the Ya’akov and Yisrael elements within our patriarch?
Ya’akov was the name he was created with, representing his holy nature. Yisrael reflects the self-elevation he reached, as the pasuk explains the name, “for you stood up to angels and to men and were successful” (Bereishit 32:29). Something that is natural from the beginning of its creation remains unchanged. Therefore, the element of Ya’akov did not die but remained unchanged. The element of Yisrael which he reached through his power to choose self-elevation was not part of his nature and, therefore, was susceptible to change and death.
Another explanation of Chazal’s contention that Ya’akov did not die can be learned from study of our haftara. The navi tells of the last meeting of King David with his son, Shlomo, before David’s death. We would expect that at such a meeting between these giants of the spiritual world, great secrets would be passed on. Indeed, Ya’akov had tried, under similar circumstances, to reveal the secret of the End of Days. When the Divine Presence left him, he sufficed with a special beracha for each of his sons, including a reference to the special goal and history of each. In contrast, David gives Shlomo general advice. “I am going (holeich) in the way of all the land, and you should strengthen yourself and turn into a man and be careful in the observances of Hashem, your G-d, to walk in His path” (Melachim I, 2:2-3). This seems to be the type of simple, final words of parting that any good Jew would give to his son.
However, more careful study can uncover that David Hamelech left Shlomo with a very profound lesson. A deceased person is considered an omed, one who remains in his place. This is because he no longer has mitzvot that enable him to progress. David taught that, with the help of the actions of one’s sons, one can still move forward (holeich) after death. This is because the good actions of the son, which stem from the education that the father gave him, cause continuing spiritual progress for the parent. This is also what is meant by the term, “a son is the leg of his father.” In other words, the son is the vehicle for the father’s movement.
Returning to Ya’akov, we can understand as follows. Ya’akov was the father of the 12 tribes of Hashem, who formed together the level of holiness embodied in the name of Ya’akov. They enabled Ya’akov to be considered alive. As the aforementioned gemara said, just as his sons are alive (and doing mitzvot) so too (namely, because of them), he is still alive.
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