Judaism and the Afterlife

Vayehi By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Jan 6, 1996 / 5756 | Torah Commentary | Philosophy

The title of this week’s parasha is full of irony. The word “va-yehi – and he (i.e. Jacob) lived” (as the word “le-hayyim – for life” to which it is related), speaks of anything but death. But death is the pervasive theme of this final portion of the book of Genesis, which deals first at length with the death of Jacob and then more briefly with that of Joseph. If Genesis opens with a celebration of life as the culmination of creation, it closes with a protracted narrative on death. The focus is, in fact, sustained through the haftara, where we are treated to David’s deathbed instructions to his son Solomon. Three case studies of “the hour of our death” (to borrow the title of Philippe Aries’ landmark book on Western attitudes toward death) on a single Shabbat!

And yet the distance between title and subject matter is not as great as it appears. After the death of Rabbi Meir (2nd century C.E.), a midrash circulated in his name so daring that he rarely taught it while alive. At the end of the sixth and final day of creation, the Torah tells us: “And God saw all that He had made, and found it very good (Genesis 1:31).” It is the extra word “very – meod” which makes this instance of the refrain noteworthy, for in the previous instances, at the close of several of the other days of creation the phrase reads simply, “And God saw that this was good (Gen. 1:3, 12, 18).”

For R. Meir the additional adverb “very” was not an innocent rhetorical flourish, but a profound existential statement. Reading the Hebrew word “mot” for “meod” (very), a slight textual variation, he claimed that what God added to the world in the final moment of creation was the phenomenon of death: “And death was good.” The Bible’s first grand account of divine creation, with its attention fixed on the profusion of life, had failed to make any mention of death. According to R. Meir, God did not inject death into the world later, as a punishment for human sin. Rather, death was part of life, for without its inescapable presence, humankind would never value or use life fully. The beauty of life flowed from its impermanence.

So for R. Meir – and for me – Genesis ends where it began, reflecting on the nature of human existence, of which death is a terrifying part. Franz Rosenzweig, the great German-Jewish theologian, begins his incomparable treatise The Star of Redemption, written in the midst of the carnage of World War One, with an indictment of western philosophy for blithely ignoring the ineradicable human fear of death:

Philosophy takes it upon itself to throw off the fear of things earthly, to rob death of its poisonous sting, and Hades of its pestilential breath. All that is mortal lives in the fear of death; every new birth augments the fear by one new reason, for it augments what is mortal. Without ceasing, the womb of the indefatigable earth gives birth to what is new, each bound to die, each awaiting the day of its journey into darkness with fear and trembling. But philosophy denies these fears of the earth. It bears us over the grave which yawns at our feet with every step. It lets the body be a prey to the abyss, but the free soul flutters away over it.

What kind of world view does the Torah offer to address the intensity of this challenge? In the spirit of R. Meir, it would respond that death is natural, even when premature and unnatural, and our life ought to be predicated on that reality. To live is to be at risk, exposed and vulnerable. David offers Solomon no sentimental sop. “I am going the way of all the earth; be strong and show yourself a man (I Kings 2:2).” His words are devoid of rage, anger, or self-pity, as are the final words of Jacob and Joseph. Nor do they soften the pain of separation by dwelling on the vision of a world where “earth shall have no dominion” (Dylan Thomas).

It is into this imperfect and unstable world where we are meant to pour our energies and hopes. When Bathsheba bore David a son after their adulterous tryst, the child lingered for seven days during which David prayed, fasted and slept on the ground. After it died, David, to the surprise of his perplexed courtiers, returned to his duties. To their question as to why he did not mourn, he replied: “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept because I thought: Who knows? The Lord may have pity on me, and the child may live.’ But now that he is dead, why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will never come back to me (II Samuel 12:22-23).”

The closing chapters of Genesis comfort us in their candor. Sentiment is not made to dress up reality. We see Jacob as his life-forces ebb. He is afflicted with illness, barely able to see. He dies as he lived: with difficulty. But even then God grants him a two-fold boon: a premonition that the end is at hand and the presence of his family. A sudden and solitary death is the most wrenching of all. The premonition gives Jacob the chance to put his affairs in order, to assemble and bless his family and to bequeath a legacy of cherished values. And when Jacob finished, “he drew his feet into the bed and, breathing his last, he was gathered to his people (Gen. 49:33).” In death as in life, belonging somewhere is the ultimate solace.

To be sure, rabbinic thought was to enrich Jewish ideas of the afterlife. But not at the expense of the primacy of this life. Our earthly existence was never allowed to become merely a quest for personal salvation. Judaism’s this-worldly ethic militated against excessive speculation about what might come after death. The overriding task remained what it had always been: to improve the human condition to the point of completing the work of creation. Each of us has but one chance to make our individual and unique contribution, and toward that end we ask of God to “teach us to count our days rightly, that we may obtain a wise heart (Psalms 90:12).”

We face our mortality by striving to be more human. Knowing that the consequences of our actions reach beyond us, we find that the reward comes in the doing.

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch

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