Genesis and Death

Vayehi By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Jan 10, 2004 / 5764 | Torah Commentary

Though the name of this week’s parashah is Va-y’hi (and Jacob lived), it deals entirely with how Jacob died. Yet, the name is not a misnomer: how we handle the inevitable onset of death impacts deeply on the conduct of our lives. Thus the story of Jacob’s demise has given rise to a font of midrashic wisdom on both life and death.

The function of Midrash is to help us understand the biblical text. Collectively, Midrash is a vast repository of rabbinic interpretation, a monument to the centrality of the Bible in Jewish consciousness. Everything is fair game for exegesis, even the pagination of the text in the Torah scroll we read in the synagogue. Nothing unusual escapes the attentive eye of the midrashic commentator.

As written in the Torah scroll, Va-y’hi follows directly upon the last word of Va-yiggash, last week’s parashah, without any break in the Hebrew text. Parashot are always separated by an intervening space of nine letters if they both end and begin on the same line (called stumah or enclosed space) or an open space that finishes the last line of the previous parashah, when the new parashah begins on the next line (called petuhah or a space opened at one end). To fully fathom what I’ve said, you might need an aliyah to the Torah! In our case, the two Parashot run together, with no more than the space of one letter separating them, a nightmare for the inexperienced Torah reader.

To the midrashic mind, the layout conveys a sense of loss. “Why is this the only parashah in the Torah that is sealed shut?” The question elicits three succinct conjectures. First, the death of Jacob marks the start of his progeny’s enslavement. The absence of space suggests a process of restriction, confinement and oppression. It may even be that the gradual decline into the abyss began with a dilution of spiritual intensity. Jacob’s departure augured an erosion of inner resolve that compounded Israel’s vulnerability.

Second, Jacob sought to share with his family when the final redemption would occur, but found his vision blocked. The elision of space connoted the loss of sight. Proximity to death failed to tap into the wellsprings of superhuman wisdom. Indeed, this view would contend that we are better served by addressing the present than speculating on the future.

Finally, what was actually obscured from Jacob’s ken were the afflictions of the world. This play on satum (closed off) delivers another gentle criticism. The tranquility of Jacob’s retirement in Egypt may have amounted to the best years of his turbulent life, but he grew insensitive to the wretched state of humanity. His reward carried the seeds of his own undoing. In short, each of the views of our midrash turned pagination into pathos (B’reishit Rabbah 96:1).

The Zohar, which is midrash informed by Kabbalah, picked up on a stylistic oddity at the beginning of our parashah. The text strangely shifts from Jacob to Israel. In the opening verse we read: “Jacob lived seventeen years in the land of Egypt,” whereas in the very next verse we read: “And when the time approached for Israel to die” (47:28-29). That is, when speaking of the patriarch’s life, the Torah uses the name of Jacob, but in death calls him Israel. Moreover, in the second verse, both subject and predicate are in the plural (literally, “when the days neared for Israel to die”), which makes no sense. A person expires in a minute or an hour, not over many days.

To which the Zohar responds that the plural “days” signifies something utterly different. When God wishes to retrieve our soul, the days we have spent on earth ascend to God for judgment. The moment these days are assembled before God is the moment that the breath we breathe is taken from us and restored by God to its divine source.

How fortunate, then, are the righteous, whose days are said “to approach” God without blemish, not one day being excluded because it is tarnished with sin. It is for this reason that Scripture uses the verb “to approach” with the righteous, stressing that their days literally approach God without impediment.

But woe to the wicked, for whom the verb “to approach” is never used. How could it be? All their days are soaked with sins. That is the reason they dare not even approach God. They are neither recalled nor judged but simply allowed to perish, which is why Scripture says: “The way of the wicked is all darkness; they do not know what will make them stumble” (Proverbs 4:19).

And now to move from the general to the specific. This is why Scripture states, in the case of Jacob, that “the days of Israel approached.” Unblemished, these days were worthy of approaching God directly. They abounded in joy and perfection. To make that point even more forcefully, the Torah chooses to use the name of Israel, whose state of perfection exceeded that of Jacob (Zohar, I, 221b).

Put differently, the Zohar urges us to live our lives from the perspective of the end, lending gravity to each moment and every act. Only those with a measure of virtue will gain the benefit of an audience. Like Jacob, we are composite creatures, the bearers of multiple identities. Some dimensions of our personalities have rendered more good than others. God’s mercy will express itself in allowing us to appear in the guise that brings us the greatest credit.

Sometimes the plain or surface meaning of the text needs no midrashic embellishment. The Torah’s poignant narrative of Jacob’s last days depicts what we would all consider a “good death.” Jacob never loses control, nor do his mental faculties fade. Denial is not his refuge. As he feels his vitality ebb, he makes his final arrangements: to extract from Joseph a pledge to bury him in the land promised by God to his grandfather and father, to bless his grandsons and to transmit to his sons a testament in which past and future are commingled. It is Jacob’s voice we hear throughout. Infirmity has not reduced him to the object of others’ verbal forays. Above all, he does not die alone. Unlike Moses, who meets his Maker on a lonely promontory without human companionship, Jacob is surrounded by family and comforted by the belief that in death he will rejoin his loved ones.

What a glorious way to bring the book of Genesis to a close, with a view of death that does not contort life, but rather calls for the same candor and courage we need to master it.

Shabbat shalom,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Va-y’hi are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.