Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Friday, January 1, 2010

Walk Article





Rabbi David Walk


            It's been pointed out many times (including in these articles) that there is a great irony in the naming of Torah readings in the book of Genesis.  The two readings that are the most death intensive have the term life in their names.  Parshat Chaye Sarah or The Lives of Sarah focuses on the death of our matriarch Sarah (and contains the death of Avraham and Yishmael, to boot), and the dominant theme this week is the passing away of Ya'akov, nevertheless its title translates as 'and he lived.'  Obviously, this is on purpose.  One could say that this is a form of Rabbinic euphemism.  We'd rather not mention death so we refer to their life.  Sort of like a clergyman in a eulogy declaring that we're not mourning a death, rather we're celebrating a life.  Well, maybe, but I think that we can discover a better reason for this naming process.

            The name of this week's parsha seems in consonance with a famous Talmudic statement quoted by Rashi (1035-1104).  Commenting on the verse, "And Jacob finished charging his sons, and he gathered up his feet to the bed and expired, and was gathered to his people" (Gen. 49:33), Rashi says, "It does not say of him that he died, and our Sages have said that Jacob our father did not die [Ta'anit 5b]." The passage alluded to in the Talmudic tractate of Ta'anit, records a discussion between a scholar from Israel, Rabbi Yitzchak bar Pinchas,  and the Babylonian Amora Rav Nachman. Rabbi Yitzchak said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan, "Jacob our father did not die." Hearing this statement by the Palestinian sages, the Babylonian Rav Nachman said to Rabbi Yitzchak, "Was it then for nothing that they mourned Jacob and the embalmers embalmed him and the grave-diggers buried him?" That is to say, how can one possibly assert that Jacob did not die, when the entire process of his burial is recorded in Genesis? Rabbi Yitzchak replied that he was in fact explicating a verse in Jeremiah, "And you, fear not, My servant Jacob, says the Lord, nor be dismayed, O Israel, for see, I save you from afar, and your seed from the land of their captivity" (Jeremiah 30:10). This verse, he said, was intended to establish an analogical relationship, for just as Jacob's descendants were alive, so had Jacob himself remained alive.  And this is the first of a number of answers to this problem.

            This answer makes sense on a number of levels.  Biologically, if my DNA is still out there, so am I.  When you look at the promises given to the Patriarchs, the assurances were always for you and your seed after you.  If seed doesn't refer to genetic material then I have no clue what it means.  However, I think that this is only noteworthy when the recipients of these genes are aware of this legacy.  For example, something like 8% of all males in central Asia (over 16 million people) are direct descendants of Genghis Khan (c. 1162-1227, who obviously had some spare time between conquests), but since they're, generally, unaware of this fact, it's not significant to their lives.  On the other hand, I hope and pray that all of us are acutely conscious of the reality that we descend from Ya'akov.  The importance of the connection informs our very being and enhances our lives.  So, Ya'akov, in a manner of speaking does indeed continue to live, and will never die as long as we emulate his life style and feel the strong link to him.  This association with Ya'akov is crucial because he transformed a nebulous family belief system into a budding ethnic religion.  The difference is that the loose clan faith is sort of optional, adopted by some family members (Yitzchak, Ya'akov) and rejected by others (Yishmael, Esav).  On the other hand, Ya'akov's legacy becomes unanimous association with the theology of monotheism.

            I think that there is another way of looking at the eternity of Ya'akov.  It's curious and unexpected that the verse which discusses the embalmment and burial preparations of our great ancestor refers to him as Yisrael (Genesis 50:2).  Although there are great debates about when we use the name Ya'akov and when he is called Yisrael, generally we assume that physical activities require his original name and spiritual endeavors necessitate his adoptive name.  However, what is more physical than the preservation of one's earthly remains?  Add to this the fact that the famous Talmudic quote about this Patriarch surviving forever refers to him as Ya'akov.  Therefore I believe that we can discover a new approach to the understanding of the point of the Gemara in Ta'anit by following this lead.

            The name Yisrael is triumphant and confident; the appellation Ya'akov describes turmoil and doubt.  He is called Yisrael when he emerges whole from a difficulty; he is referenced as Ya'akov while he wanders in perplexity through life's tribulations.  So, what is Rabbi Yitzchak teaching in his dictum that Ya'kov never died?  Perhaps, he's informing us of a point made in 1977 by the great Austrian-American psychologist Bruno Bettleheim (and, of course, Jewish, I mean we are talking about a psychologist):  Psychoanalysis was created to enable man to accept the problematic nature of life without being defeated by it…only by struggling against what seems like overwhelming odds can man succeed in wringing meaning out of existence (The Uses of Enchantment). 

            Perhaps, Rabbi Yitzchak in the name of Rabbi Yochanan is teaching us something much more important than a mystical triviality.  He's teaching us the meaning of life.  We all know that the Yisrael aspect of our ancestor lives on.  After all, we are called the Children of Yisrael and long for our homeland of that name.  But we might forget that the Ya'akov nature of our Patriarch continues in us all, as well.  This teaches us that life's struggles are as significant as life's triumphs.  To live is to struggle.  Long live the struggle and long live our beloved Alter Zeidie, Ya'akov Avinu.  


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