OU Torah Insights ProjectParshat Vayechi
The focal point of this weeks parshah is the passing of Yaakov Avinu, the last of the Avos. The Torah states, "When Yaakov finished instructing his sons, he drew his feet onto the bed, he expired and was gathered to his people." Rashi, quoting the Talmud, comments, "It does not say that he died.... He lives forever."
On the one hand, we can interpret this statement homiletically: Yaakov lives on through later generations. As long as his descendants, the Bnei Yisrael, are alive and following his legacy, Yaakov lives on.
However, Rabbi Yochanan, in the Talmud, insists, "Our father, Yaakov, did not die."
Rabbi Nachman asks, "Did the mourners eulogize him and the embalmers embalm him for nothing?"
Rabbi Yochanan quotes the verse in Yirmiyahu: "Have no fear, my servant Yaakov...for behold I will save you from afar and your descendants from the land of return." Just as his descendants are alive, so, too, is he.
Rabbi Leib Chasman, in his sefer, Ohr Yahal, wonders how Rabbi Nachman accepted this answer. The Torah explicitly states that Yaakov was embalmed and buried. He answers that every verse in the Torah must incorporate the words of our Sages, even when logic dictates otherwise.
When Rabbi Yochanan states his interpretation, it is not just a homiletic exercise, but a mesorah going back to Sinai. It defines the meaning of the verse: his embalment must be understood in that contexthe only appeared to be dead. This concept is integral to understanding all of Chumash: to read the Torah without seeing it through the prism of the commentaries is dangerous.
The Talmud states that the ammora, Rebbi, appeared regularly at his home after his death, until he was spotted by a neighbor. He would recite Kiddush for his family on Shabbos. This must mean that he was obligated to make Kiddush, or else his family could not discharge their obligations either by listening to his recitation.
Similarly, we are all familiar with the tradition of Eliyahu Hanavi appearing at various times throughout history (and every year at the Pesach seder). One of the ammoraim was shocked to see him in a cemetery, for Eliyahu is a kohein, and his death did not excuse him from performance of mitzvos.
The primary lesson for us concerns the boundary between life and death. The more a body and soul are in harmony during the life of an individual, the less traumatic is their separation at death. When body and soul achieve total harmony, as they did in the case of Yaakov Avinu and Eliyahu Hanavi, the concept of death is not relevant. "Yaakov avinu lo meis."
It should be easy for us to understand that there is eternal life, where the soul exists unfettered by a human body. This knowledge ought to provide us with great consolation, knowing that the death of an individual does not mean that they are gone forever.
Rabbi Yaacov Wasser
Rabbi Wasser is rabbi of Young Israel of East Brunswick, in East Brunswick, New Jersey.