Mercy and Truth

Vayehi By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Dec 25, 1993 / 5754 | Torah Commentary

My father’s synagogue in the small Pennsylvania town of Pottstown was known by the name “Congregation Mercy and Truth.” As an irreverent youngster, more interested in sports than in matters of the spirit, I always thought it an odd name for a synagogue. Learning Hebrew befuddled me still more, because the Hebrew name of Hesed shel Emet (a merciful act of truth) didn’t fully correspond to the English. It was only years later that I discovered that the Hebrew name was based on a sage bit of midrash on a phrase used by Jacob at the beginning of this week’s parasha.

At the age of 147, after 17 years in Egypt, Jacob has a premonition that death is near. The Torah relates: “And when the time approached for Israel to die, he summoned his son Joseph and said to him, `Do me this favor, place your hand under my thigh as a pledge of your steadfast loyalty: please do not bury me in Egypt (Genesis 47:29)’.” The Hebrew for “steadfast loyalty” is hesed ve-emet, which literally means “mercy and truth.” Theoretically, the two words as a figure of speech convey a single thought, hence the translation of “steadfast loyalty,” like the phrase “a cold and bitter day” by which we mean to say “a very cold day.”

But the midrash rejects the idea that the Torah ever uses two words to say one and the same thing. God’s language is expansive, not redundant. Hence the midrash understands hesed ve-emet as hesed shel emet, “a merciful act of truth.” And what precisely is such an act? One that is wholly altruistic, for which repayment of any kind is no longer possible, namely, attending to the needs of the dead and the dying. In its own intuitive way, the midrash has cut to the core of Jacob’s request, an appeal to Joseph’s conscience, unenforceable and beyond reward. To bury Jacob in Canaan and not in Egypt would mark an instance of true selflessness.

In short, the synagogue in Pottstown was evidently founded as a hevra kaddisha, a burial society. Its Hebrew name echoed the midrash, while the English one preserved the biblical phrase on which it rested.

Many a nascent Jewish community acquired a cemetery before it built a synagogue, and, of all the societies in a large medieval community, the hevra kaddisha was always the most honored. Its very name “Holy Society” bespoke the saintliness of its mission – to bury those whose souls had departed without any thought of personal gain. If you managed to see a decade ago the exhibition of Judaic treasures from Prague, “The Precious Legacy,” you may recall the unique set of 15 paintings commissioned in 1780 by the hevra kaddisha (Prague was then the largest Jewish community in Europe) depicting its many duties from praying at the bedside of the terminally ill, washing the body, digging the grave, arranging the funeral, and burying the deceased with as much haste and dignity as possible. There are few mitzvot in Judaism which rank higher than these, and few more ennobling.

Our parasha is named Va-yehi “and Jacob lived,” but it is really about how he died. It fittingly closes the book of Genesis with a font of Jewish wisdom about how to face the end of life. We learn best by example. The universal pathos of the moment is captured by the midrash on the verse I quoted above, “And when the time approached for Israel to die.” To unpack the angst within those stark words, the midrash brings a passage from David’s address at the coronation of Solomon just before his own death: “For we are sojourners with You (i.e. God), mere transients like our fathers; our days on earth are like a shadow, with nothing in prospect (I Chronicles 29:15).” But not all shadows are of the same duration. Poignantly, the midrash continues: “If only we were talking abut the shadow of a wall or a tree! But David’s metaphor refers to the shadow of a bird in flight, for it is written (as we know from the Yizkor service): “Man is like a breath, his days are like a passing shadow (that is never still) (Psalms 144:4).” Brevity has its own gradations.

And yet, the spirit that fills Jacob is not that of Dylan Thomas:

Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Jacob faces the prospect of death, the ebbing of his life’s forces, with acceptance and resignation. In the haphtara for our parasha, David gives voice to the sobriety of Jacob’s attitude toward death, and, by extension, to Judaism’s as well. On his deathbed, he tells Solomon: “I am going the way of all the earth; be strong and show yourself a man (I Kings 2:2).” There is neither defiance nor denial here; only a deep recognition of the naturalness of death.

A premonition is a blessing. It permits us to prepare ourselves and our loved ones, which is what Jacob does. This is death with dignity amid the comfort of family. In a final gesture that illuminates his pain at the loss of his beloved Rachel many years before, Jacob extends her seed by adopting the two sons of Joseph as his own. Her premature death had kept the number of her children to only two.

He also discourses on the character of his children. With old age our minds become uncluttered. As the details fade, the big picture emerges more clearly. In the words of the writer May Sarton: “Old age is not an illness, it is a timeless ascent. As power diminishes, we grow toward more light.” When Jacob assembles his sons one last time, he actually wishes to peer beyond the darkness: “Come together that I may tell you what is to befall you in days to come (Gen. 49:1).” Yet as the midrash observes, he ends up talking of the past more than the future. God’s light had already begun to dim.

The description of Jacob’s death is no less noteworthy. He finishes his discourse and instructions, draws his feet into the bed, and is gathered to his people (Gen. 49:33). The phrase “gathered to his people” is the usual way for the Torah to speak of death, reasserting at the moment of separation the communal ethos of Judaism. Life after death is conceived in terms of the same basic values as life itself, that is, communally and not individually. There is no speculation here of what is to follow, only an elliptic phrase of reunion that stresses the centrality of the group. Comfort and meaning derive from identifying with something larger than the self. Implicitly the Torah repudiates the Egyptian obsession with individual salvation in a world-to-come. The pyramids testify to the folly of living life backwards from a perspective beyond the grave. In the end, Va-yehi is life-affirming.

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

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.