Thursday, January 12, 2017

Did Jacob die? Yes and No - Torah portion Vayechi

Jacob finishes blessing (and admonishing) his children, and dies. Or does he? Yes, of course he does. Here's the verse:
Egyptian wooden sarcophagus, circa 14th century BCE
"And Jacob concluded commanding his sons, and he gathered his legs into the bed, and expired and was gathered to his people." (Gen 49:33)
Rashi cites the Talmud here, where Rabbi Yitzchak is invited to speak some words of Torah at Rabbi Nachman's table and says the following in the name of Rabbi Yochanan:
"Jacob our patriarch did not die." (B.T. Ta'anit 5b)
The scriptural basis for the idea, says Rashi, is that Jacob is the only person whose death is described in the Torah merely as "he expired" - as opposed to "he expired and died," as it says for Abraham (25:8), Ishmael (25:17), Isaac (35:29), and Aaron (Num 20:26).

Rashi doesn't quote the rest of the conversation from the Talmud. When Rabbi Yitzchak suggests that Jacob didn't die, Rabbi Nachman objects:
"Was it then for nothing that [Jacob] was eulogized and embalmed?"
Meaning, Jacob obviously died. The Torah talks about 40 days of embalming, 70 days where the Egyptians wept, Jacob's sarcophagus, a great procession of horses, chariots, and elders of Egypt accompanying Jacob's body to its resting place in Canaan, an additional 7 days of mourning in Canaan itself - so what do you mean he "didn't die"? I'll also add the slew of other verses in the very same narrative that do in fact use the word "die" relating to Jacob:
"When the time drew near for Israel to die..." (47:29)
"Behold, I am going to die..." (48:21)
"Joseph's brothers saw that their father had died..." (49:15)
"Your father commanded before his death..." (49:16)
So where is Rabbi Yitzchak coming from? He answers as follows:
"I derive it from Scripture, as it says: 'And you, my servant Jacob, do not fear - says YHVH - and do not be dismayed, Israel, for I am saving you from afar, and your descendants from the land of their captivity.' (Jer 30:10) The verse likens him (Jacob) to his descendants (Israel). Just as his descendants are alive, so too is he alive."
The conversation about Jacob ends there. The first thing to note is that Rabbi Yitzchak wasn't at all referring to Gen 49:33, regarding Jacob's death. He was talking about a verse in Jeremiah. It's Rashi who first connects Rabbi Yitzchak's statement to Gen 49:33, picking up on the fact that it doesn't use the word "died."

And that is precisely what a good "drash" does - it takes a teaching from the tradition and attaches it creatively to a verse. Of course, it was already explicitly connected to the verse in Jeremiah. But I imagine that Rashi saw an opening here that was too good to pass up - another "hint" to the idea that Jacob never died, and so therefore another place to attach Rabbi Yitzchak's concept.

But did Rashi actually believe that Jacob, the biblical figure, was still alive? Did Rabbi Yitzchak believe it? If so, did they believe he was alive physically, or spiritually, or in a metaphorical sense - i.e. by virtue of his descendants, the "children of Israel," being alive?

The question of "what did so-and-so believe" (i.e. what did they mean by their statement) is an interesting question, but ultimately an academic one, for historians and other scholars to debate. For instance, based on beliefs held at the time, or based on his collective statements in the Talmud, we might conclude that it's very unlikely Rabbi Yitzchak would have meant that Jacob the patriarch himself was still walking the earth. On the other hand, it might be the case that such a belief was not so outlandish at the time.

I say it's "academic" because I'm not sure what the religious significance would be for us if we had a definitive answer one way or the other. Is the goal to try to mimic the beliefs of others, to believe what Rashi or Rabbi Yitzchak believed? What if they believed different things? And even if we wanted to do it, how do we "get" ourselves to believe that Jacob is alive - physically or spiritually - if we really don't believe it?

In any case, I think the first thing to do is to acknowledge that "Jacob our forefather didn't die" is not the pshat (plain meaning) of the text in Genesis, nor in Jeremiah, which frequently uses the terms "Jacob" and "Israel" poetically to refer to the Jewish nation. It's a drash, a homiletic interpretation. Pshat is an academic pursuit - its goal is to "discover" the plain meaning. Drash is a religious, pedagogical approach - it's goal is to "teach" something, using a verse as a mnemonic device or a jumping off point. Which doesn't mean that drash can't utilize vast knowledge and scholarship - it certainly can! Stringing bits of data from the tradition meaningfully and creatively together via associative thinking can entail the work of incredible genius. If done well, it can also impart vital ideas to people and offer guidance in their religious outlook and lives.

So yes, I'm interested from the standpoint of pure curiosity what Rashi and Rabbi Yitzchak believed about Jacob not dying - the "pshat on the drash" if you will. But from a practical, religious standpoint, I'm interested in what significance we derive from their words. What's our "drash on the drash" - i.e. what ideas are we reinforcing by attaching them to the idea that Jacob never died?

Of course you'll encounter some very different answers depending on who you ask. Many resonate with the mystical approach, the idea that Jacob himself is alive in a spiritual sense, for instance based on the Midrashic concept that the righteous are alive in their death - take away the bodily garment and their soul shines even more powerfully. Possibly the Jewish equivalent of Obiwan's "Strike me down and I shall become more possible than you can possibly imagine."

I'll say that for myself, I increasingly prefer the rational, non-metaphysical approach. For me, the statement "Jacob did not die," does not mean that Jacob the person continues to live - rather, it's another way of saying am Yisrael chai, "the people of Israel live." Which when you think about it is an incredible and inspiring thought, one that connects us to thousands of years of history. It's the idea of the Jewish nation as a living entity, one which continues the process of "growing up" and (hopefully) finding ways to contribute to the greater human project. That's how I personally would choose to understand the drash - because I believe it's a thought worth reinforcing.


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