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Is My Father Still Alive?

Is My Father Still Alive?

Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 4:21 p.m.
Torah: Gen. 47:28-50:26
Haftorah: I Kings 2:1-12
Havdalah: 5:22 p.m.               

Our Torah portion, Vayechi, begins by telling us that Jacob lived in Egypt for 17 years. It describes the concluding days of his life, and we read of the passing of the last of our forefathers: “When Jacob finished instructing his sons, he drew his feet onto his bed and he expired and was gathered to his people” [Genesis, 49:33].

If we recall the description of the other two Avot (Abraham and Isaac) on their passing, the terms used were almost the same. “And Abraham expired and died at a good old age, old and fulfilled, and he gathered to his people” [Gen. 26:8]. Later, “And Isaac expired and died and he was gathered to his people, old and fulfilled of days….” [Gen. 35:29].

We see that all three of our forefathers had the words “expired” and “gathered” used at their passing, but only Abraham and Isaac were said to have “died.” In Jacob’s case, the word “va’yamot” (“and he died”) is omitted. Did Jacob, in fact, not die? After all, the embalming, mourning, and burial of Jacob are described in detail. What is behind this omission?

The Talmud [Taanis 5b], discusses this question: “Thus said Rabbi Yochanan: Jacob, our forefather, never died.” In a discussion between R. Yitzchak and Rav Nachman, attempting to explain Rabbi Yochanan’s surprising statement, the former expounds a verse from Jeremiah [Jer. 30:10]:

“And you fear not My servant Jacob, says Hashem, and do not become broken Israel, for I will deliver you from afar, and your seed from captivity.” R. Yitzchak draws a parallel between Jacob and his seed: “Just as Jacob’s offspring are living, so too will Jacob be living at that time.”

Most of the commentators do not take the statement of Rabbi Yochanan at face value. The Maharsha explains that Jacob’s spirit did not die, but his body, of course, did. So why was Jacob granted a higher level of existence than his father and grandfather? The answer given is that Abraham had Ishmael as a son, and Isaac had Esau, while all of Jacob’s seed were righteous. From this, we learn that anyone who leaves this world with all his children involved in Torah and mitzvot, it is as if he did not die.

Another explanation is that until the time of Jacob, everyone died a sudden death. (It was said that a sneeze preceded the soul’s leaving the body, which may explain why various good wishes are heaped on the sneezer). It was only at the end of Jacob’s life, that he became sick for several days, giving him a chance to gather his children and give them his instructions and testament. In that sense he did not die what was then a normal death.

As any parent would, Jacob, before he was “gathered to his people,” desperately wanted his children to be at peace with one another. “Then Jacob called for his sons, and said, ‘Gather together, and I will tell you what will befall you at the End of Days.’” [Gen. 49:1]. The Midrash says that at this time all the sons assembled “with togetherness,” with one heart, giving their father great comfort.

This past summer, during the Gaza war, an extraordinary thing occurred that I had not seen in Israel since the Six-Day War — togetherness. Unfortunately for many of the years that Israel has been a nation, there has often been a societal divisiveness between secular and religious, Ashkenazi and Sephardi, European and Ethiopian. But during the war there developed an overwhelming feeling of Achdut, unity. A popular cartoon went viral: The cartoon had two boxes. In the first, two men were shouting and vilifying each other; one secular, head shaved, wearing jeans and a T-shirt, tattooed; the other chasidic, wearing a round, black hat and a long black coat. Expletives were flying back and forth. In the cartoon’s second box, we see two arms together, hands grasped; one arm fully tattooed, the other arm wrapped in tefillin.

The commentator Abarbanel offered a very logical and simple elucidation on the question of Jacob’s passing: The Jewish people are not called the children of Abraham or Isaac or Moses. But we are called the Children of Israel (Jacob’s alternate name). In this sense, Jacob never died, in that his name would continue to live, existing in perpetuity. May this existence continue to reflect the achdut, the unity, the respect and tolerance, the ahavat Yisrael, the love of all Jews for each other, in perpetuity.

Joseph asked, “Ha’od avi chai?” (Is my father still alive?). And we answer in song, to this very day, “Am Yisrael chai” (the people of Israel live); “Od avinu chai” (our forefather still lives).

Fred Ehrman is an investment adviser, chairman of the board of Ohr Torah Stone Institutions of Israel, and national vice president of the Orthodox Union. He recently celebrated his third Siyum Hashas, the completion of learning the six orders of the Babylonian Talmud.

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