“The Patriarch Jacob Did Not Die!”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s Torah portion, parashat Vayechi, the patriarch Jacob, passes away at age 147.

The Torah, in Genesis 49:33, describes Jacob’s death in the following manner: “Vah’y’chal Yaakov l’tzah’voht et bah’nahv, va’yeh’eh’sohf rahg’lahv el ha’mee’tah, v’yig’vah, v’yay’ah’sef el ah’mav,” When Jacob finished instructing his sons, he drew his feet onto the bed; he expired and was gathered unto his people.

The Bible reports that Joseph then fell on his father’s face, wept over him and kissed him. Joseph then arranged for his servants and the physicians to embalm his father, which was a forty day process. Including the embalming period, all of Egypt mourned for Jacob a total of seventy days.

After the conclusion of the Egyptian mourning period, Joseph requested Pharaoh’s permission to bury his father in Canaan. Permission was granted, and all of Joseph’s household, his brothers’ and his father’s households went up to Canaan, accompanied by a huge Egyptian entourage (Vayechi 5771-2010). According to most commentators, in Canaan, the family observed the seven-day mourning period before the burial, and, only then, buried Jacob in the Ma’areth Hamachpaleh, the tomb of the patriarchs.

Rashi, citing the Talmud in Taanit 5b, notes that the word “va’yah’maht”–and he died–is not mentioned regarding Jacob’s passing, whereas at the passing of both Abraham (Genesis 25:8), and Isaac (Genesis 35:29), the Hebrew word for death is mentioned. Regarding Jacob’s passing, the Bible instead uses the words (Genesis 49:33), “Va’yig’vah v’yay’ah’sef el ah’mav,” that Jacob expired and was brought to his people. Consequently, says Rashi, our rabbis, of blessed memory, maintain that this implies that our father Jacob did not die.

The full text of the Talmudic statement in Taanit 5b reads as follows:

Rabbi Yochanan said: “Our father Jacob did not die.” Rabbi Nachman retorted to Rabbi Yitzchak: “Was it for nothing that the mourners mourned, the embalmers embalmed and the grave-diggers buried?” He replied, “It is a Biblical verse which I expound (Jeremiah 30:10), ‘Therefore do not fear, O Jacob My servant,’ said the L-rd, ‘and do not be dismayed, O Israel; for I will save you from afar, and your descendants from captivity.’” Jacob is thus equated with his descendants. Just as his descendants live on, so does he.

Rashi, commenting on this statement in tractate Taanit, explains that Jeremiah’s prophecy intimates that father Jacob “goes into exile” with the Jewish people, so that He will be there to witness the redemption of his descendants. Confirmation of Jacob’s going into exile is found in the passage describing the splitting of the Red Sea that states (Exodus 14:31), “And Israel saw the mighty arm that G-d had inflicted on Egypt…” This refers not to the people Israel who witness the great miracle, but to the patriarch Jacob, who is also known as Israel, and was present with his children when the sea split.

Another Midrash, cited in the Talmud Sotah 13a, describing Jacob’s burial, implies that Jacob lived not only in a spiritual sense, but in a literal, physical sense. The Talmud there records that Esau tried to prevent the burial of Jacob in the Cave of the Patriarchs. Chushim, the son of Dan, who was outraged by the indignity to his grandfather, struck Esau on the head with a club, causing Esau’s eyes to fall out and roll to Jacob’s feet. Jacob then opened his eyes and laughed.

Most commentators, however, understand Jacob’s survival only in a spiritual sense, the way that the Talmud in Taanit concludes, by saying that just as Jacob’s descendants live on, so does Jacob himself live on. Although Jacob no longer lives in a physical sense, he continues to live on spiritually, through the heritage that he passed on to his descendants, the Children of Israel.

This metaphoric interpretation, positing Jacob’s ever-presence among his people, raises many questions. After all, didn’t Joseph say to Pharaoh, in his father’s name (Genesis 50:5), “Behold, I [Jacob] am about to die.” This, however, is understood as an expression of modesty, or perhaps to prepare Pharaoh for Jacob’s eventual passing. Scripture also reports (Genesis 50:15) that the brothers of Joseph saw that their father was dead. This, too, is seen as the brothers’ perception, but death did not actually hold sway over Jacob.

The mystical interpreters often refer to Jacob’s continuing presence in Israel as the presence of “Yisrael Sabba,” grandpa Israel. “Yisrael Sabba,” is understood to be our people’s unique culture and lifestyle, which hovers over the Jewish people and watches them. As a result of Jacob’s lifelong devotion to his children and his descendants, the future generations that descend from him have the ability to awaken in themselves the strength of Jacob, their grandfather, at all times. Any Jew who is faithful to tradition, who studies and labors over Torah, is able to find, and take strength from, grandpa Jacob.

The indomitable will of the Jewish people to survive and to persevere, their commitment to treasure every word of Torah, to embrace G-d against all odds, is attributable to the legacy of grandpa Jacob.

May the inspiration of Yisrael Sabba, of grandpa Israel, remain with our people until the coming of the Messiah, speedily, in our days.

May you be blessed.