Larchmont Temple Chevra Torah

Questioning faith in the parsha


Click here for Hebrew text VaYchi


49:29      I am about to be gathered to my kin.  Bury me with my fathers in the cave which is in the field of Ephron the Hittite…in the Land of Canaan

RASHI… A verb from the root “ASAF” because they bring in the souls to the place they are stored away. [B. TALMUD, Shabbat 152b]  So we read “And no one brought them into the house…” [Judges 19:15] or “When you bring in the crop of the Land…” [Leviticus 23:39] Thus any term from the root “ASAF” in association with death also means a “bringing in.”

                  TALMUD…R’ Chisda taught: A person’s soul mourns for him after death seven days, as it was written:

                  “And he mourned for his father seven days.”  …It was taught: R’ Eliezer said: The souls of the righteous are

                  hidden beneath the Throne of Glory, as it is written: “Yet the soul of my Lord shall be bound up in the bond of life”

[I Sam 25:29]   But the souls of the wicked will be eternally imprisoned….A certain Sadducee said to R’ Abbahu: You maintain that the souls of the righteous are hidden beneath the Throne of Glory.  How did the necromancer then bring up Samuel?…It was within 12 months of his death, he replied, for it is known:

A full 12 months the body exists as the soul ascends and descends, but after 12 months the body is no more,

and the soul ascends and descends nevermore.

ALSHECH“I am about to be gathered…”  By repeating “Ani Ne’esaf—I am being gathered in to my people…”

Jacob makes the point that since he’ll have immediate entrance to the hereafter, there’s no point in leaving his body in Egypt even temporarily.

49:33      When Jacob finished instructing his sons, he drew his feet into the bed and, breathing his last, he was gathered to his people.

SARNA“He drew his feet into the bed…”  Presumably, he had been sitting with his feet over the side, but this is hardly a posture for someone about to breathe his last.  The unique phrase may be a figurative expression for dying.  The usual threefold formula [cf 25:8,17] includes “VaYamot—and he died,” which is here missing…

ALSHECH… By failing to mention the word “death,” this verse points to the fact that the ritual impurity usually the result of negative forces gaining control of a dead person did not materialize. As soon as Jacob gathered his feet into his bed, he was gathered to his people.  No interval of purification of his soul was necessary.

R’ Harold KUSHNER… “He drew his feet into the bed…”  Jacob is described as “lifting his feet” to begin

his journey after his ladder dream at Bethel…He has loved, he has fought, he has known bereavement.  Now, after many years, Jacob can finally stop wandering and struggling.  We may see Jacob as perhaps the most fascinating of the Patriarchs.  He is many different people over the course of a long, eventful life…He seeks contentment and never succeeds in finding it because there is always one more challenge to overcome. 

To be a Jew is to be a descendant of Jacob—Israel.       

50:10-11  When they came to Goren-Ha’Atad they held a solemn lamentation—observing a mourning for seven days.  And when the Canaanites saw this, they said: This is a difficult mourning time for Egypt, which is why it was named Avel-Mitzrayim

RASHI“The threshing floor of thorns” and so it was called since it was surrounded by “thorns.”  Thus our Sages expounded it was called this because of an event: All the kings of Canaan and the princes of Ishmael came there to do battle, but once they saw Joseph’s crown hanging from Jacob’s coffin, they all stood still, and proceeded to place their crowns around it, creating a circle of crowns—like a threshing floor of thorns. [Sotah 13a]

ALSHECH“a great mourning for Egypt”…How so?  The Canaanites emphasized that the loss was Egypt’s, since while Jacob lived there, he had been a source of great blessing for the country.  Now, by implication, he’d confer blessing on the Canaanites.

50:13       His sons carried him to the land of Canaan, burying him in the cave of the field of Machpelah, which Abraham had purchased for a burial site from Ephron the Hittite.  After burying his father, Joseph returned to Egypt—he and all his brothers

                  TANCHUMA“His sons carried”—For he had assigned them places: Three to the east, and likewise, in all four directions, according to their arrangement for marching through the wilderness and encamping around the Holy Ark

TALMUD… R’ Nachman & R’ Isaac were sitting at a meal when R’ Nachman said: “Let the master expound!” R’ Yochanan interrupted: “One should not converse at meals lest the windpipe act before the gullet and one’s life be endangered.” After they finished, R’ Yochanan said: “Our father Jacob did not die.”  Was it for nothing then that he was mourned and embalmed and buried?” Replied R’ Isaac.  The other replied: “I derive this from Torah, as it is said: “Therefore fear not, My servant Jacob, neither be dismayed O Israel, for I will save you from afar and your seed from the land of their captivity.” [Jer 30:10]  Jacob is akin to his seed, and so long as it lives—he too lives. ….[Ta’anit 5b]


R’ Neil GILLMAN …[ Leading theologian of Conservative Judaism—Prof of Jewish Phil at JTS, celebrated author/teacher…See Gillman’s work: The Death of Death: Resurrection and Immortality in Jewish Thought, Jewish Lights] 

One of the great deathbed scenes in world literature concludes with these lines:

            “Its all over,” said someone standing beside him.

            He heard these words, and repeated them in his soul.

            “Death is over,” he said to himself.  “There is no more death.”

He drew in a breath, broke it off in the middle of it, stretched himself out, and died.

When Tolstoy penned this description of the last seconds in the life of Ivan Ilyitch, he was drawing on a 2,000 year-old tradition as to what happens to human beings after they die.  From the second century B.C.E. until the dawn of the modern age, Judaism and later Christianity affirmed that the death of a human being did not signify the end of that person’s relationship with God, that God’s power extended beyond the grave, that human beings would live again and come before God in judgment, and that at the end of days, death too would die.

The two biblical personalities whose deathbed scenes are described in Parshat VaYechi did not have this tradition to draw on.  The last words of Jacob and Joseph deal with what will happen to their bodies after they die.  Jacob is to be buried with his parents and grandparents in the Cave of Machpelah…If there is a hint of immortality in these scenes, it lies in Jacob’s extended prophecy of what will happen to his sons in the days to come…Jacob’s immortality is linked to the destiny of his progeny.

But neither Jacob nor Joseph, nor, for that matter, any other biblical personality, questions the finality of death…None of the patriarchs, nor Aaron, Moses or Miriam are portrayed as expecting to live again.  When Jacob is told of Joseph’s apparent death, he refuses to be comforted: “No, I will go down mourning to my son in Sheol.” [Gen 37:35]  Jacob has no hope of being united with his children after death.

There are only two biblical texts that speak of the dead rising from their graves.  One is Daniel 12:2 [usually dated from 165BCE]: “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake.”  The other, of uncertain date, Isaiah 26:19: “Oh, let your dead revive; let your corpses arise!”  The first phrase of Isaiah was later incorporated into our Amidah, where God is portrayed as “Mechayeh HaMaytim—Reviver of the Dead.”  God’s future resurrection of the dead later became central to Pharisaic teaching, and once incorporated into the Amidah, became canonical Jewish thought until modernity.

…My annual encounter with these deathbed scenes reminds me that it was on this Shabbat in 1972 that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel died in his sleep.  But literally days before he died, he taped the memorable television interview which constituted Rabbi Heshel’s last words.  Many portions of the interview are worth recalling, but two stand out in my mind.  First, when Rabbi Heschel is asked what he anticipates will happen to him after he dies,  he brushes the question aside.  He has far too much to do during his lifetime; he is more than willing to let God worry about what will happen to him after he dies.  The second is that remarkable last minute of the conversation, when Rabbi Heschel is asked if he has a message to deliver to the young people.  His answer: “Remember that there is a meaning beyond the absurdity—a meaning beyond the mystery.  And remember too that it is each of our responsibilities to shape our lives as if they were a work of art.”

I am always struck by the fact that death is so central to a Torah portion called VaYechi—And Jacob lived.  The none-too-subtle message is that within death, life continues, in more ways than one.


                        R’ Larry HOFFMAN…

                  So Genesis ends, on balance, with a positive message, even for men and women—like ourselves

                  who wonder whether life is all worthwhile, given the constant struggle to make life matter and the constant fear that we are incapable of achieving any lasting end, that we will surely die without ever knowing that what we lived for came to pass. 

                  For history’s plan transcends our human vision.  We are here as part of a whole we cannot fathom. 

                  In the play called History, our part may be paltry and our lines brief, but they are necessary. 

                  Only with such a faith in the future can we stand the thought of dying, after all. 

                  Thus, this week’s portion pictures Jacob anxiously postponing his own demise until he can pass on the blessing to his own posterity.  Here we encounter what may well be the rabbis bravest interpretation:

                  “R’ Yochanan said: Jacob, our forefather, never did die!”  [Ta’anit 5b] 

                  Now we understand Joseph’s anxious question: “Is my father still alive?” as a timeless query;

                  not “Has he died?” but “Must he ever die?”  To which the Rabbis answer: No—Never,

                  so long as he passes on the blessing…

                  Genesis invites us to be like Jacob, unhappily thrust into a world of struggle but working nonetheless

                  for ends we do not know, by delivering yesterday’s blessings to tomorrow; so that whenever it is

                  we are forced to breathe our last, we too will know that we transcend our own demise.


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