Thursday, January 12, 2006

parshat Vayechi: Yaakov Avinu Didn't Die

There is a joke going around the internet:
A defense attorney, cross-examining a pathologist, asked, "Before you signed the death certificate, had you taken the pulse?"

"Pathologist: 'No.'

"Attorney: 'Did you listen to the heart?'

"Pathologist: 'No.'

"Attorney:'Did you check for breathing?'


"Attorney: 'So, when you signed the death certificate you weren't sure the man was dead, were you?'

"Pathologist: 'Well, let me put it this way: The man's brain was sitting in a jar on my desk. But I guess it's possible he could be practicing law somewhere.'
There is a famous midrash, made famous by Rashi's citation of it, that our forefather Yaakov did not die.

If so, what Yosef did next was extremely cruel, and probably a violation of kubud av. Bereishit 50:2:
ב וַיְצַו יוֹסֵף אֶת-עֲבָדָיו אֶת-הָרֹפְאִים, לַחֲנֹט אֶת-אָבִיו; וַיַּחַנְטוּ הָרֹפְאִים, אֶת-יִשְׂרָאֵל. 2 And Joseph commanded his servants the physicians to embalm his father. And the physicians embalmed Israel.
ג וַיִּמְלְאוּ-לוֹ אַרְבָּעִים יוֹם, כִּי כֵּן יִמְלְאוּ יְמֵי הַחֲנֻטִים; וַיִּבְכּוּ אֹתוֹ מִצְרַיִם, שִׁבְעִים יוֹם. 3 And forty days were fulfilled for him; for so are fulfilled the days of embalming. And the Egyptians wept for him threescore and ten days.
Mummification ("embalming") in Ancient Egypt involved removing the brain through the nostrils and placing it in a jar, certainly not a pleasant experience for one who is alive. Is Yaakov Avinu practicing law somewhere?

Similarly, why should the Egyptians have mourned him?

Yaakov's sons also buried him, an unneccessary and possibly also unpleasant experience:
יג וַיִּשְׂאוּ אֹתוֹ בָנָיו, אַרְצָה כְּנַעַן, וַיִּקְבְּרוּ אֹתוֹ, בִּמְעָרַת שְׂדֵה הַמַּכְפֵּלָה: אֲשֶׁר קָנָה אַבְרָהָם אֶת-הַשָּׂדֶה לַאֲחֻזַּת-קֶבֶר, מֵאֵת עֶפְרֹן הַחִתִּי--עַל-פְּנֵי מַמְרֵא. 13 For his sons carried him into the land of Canaan, and buried him in the cave of the field of Machpelah, which Abraham bought with the field, for a possession of a burying-place, of Ephron the Hittite, in front of Mamre.
Also, the pasuk seems to say that Yaakov died:

Bereishit 49:33:
לג וַיְכַל יַעֲקֹב לְצַוֹּת אֶת-בָּנָיו, וַיֶּאֱסֹף רַגְלָיו אֶל-הַמִּטָּה; וַיִּגְוַע, וַיֵּאָסֶף אֶל-עַמָּיו. 33 And when Jacob made an end of charging his sons, he gathered up his feet into the bed, and expired, and was gathered unto his people.
Perhaps one might deduce something from the fact that it uses the expression וַיִּגְוַע and וַיֵּאָסֶף אֶל-עַמָּיו but does not state vayamat. In constrast, by Avraham, three expressions are used. Bereishit 25:7-8:
ז וְאֵלֶּה, יְמֵי שְׁנֵי-חַיֵּי אַבְרָהָם--אֲשֶׁר-חָי: מְאַת שָׁנָה וְשִׁבְעִים שָׁנָה, וְחָמֵשׁ שָׁנִים. 7 And these are the days of the years of Abraham's life which he lived, a hundred threescore and fifteen years.
ח וַיִּגְוַע וַיָּמָת אַבְרָהָם בְּשֵׂיבָה טוֹבָה, זָקֵן וְשָׂבֵעַ; וַיֵּאָסֶף, אֶל-עַמָּיו. 8 And Abraham expired, and died in a good old age, an old man, and full of years; and was gathered to his people.
Similarly by Yitzchak's death, three expressions are used: Bereishit 35:28-29:

כח וַיִּהְיוּ, יְמֵי יִצְחָק--מְאַת שָׁנָה, וּשְׁמֹנִים שָׁנָה. 28 And the days of Isaac were a hundred and fourscore years.
כט וַיִּגְוַע יִצְחָק וַיָּמָת וַיֵּאָסֶף אֶל-עַמָּיו, זָקֵן וּשְׂבַע יָמִים; וַיִּקְבְּרוּ אֹתוֹ, עֵשָׂו וְיַעֲקֹב בָּנָיו
29 And Isaac expired, and died, and was gathered unto his people, old and full of days; and Esau and Jacob his sons buried him.
It is to this type of detail that midrash pays attention. Still, the actual derivation that Yaakov didn't die (or perhaps "isn't dead") is from a pasuk in Yirmiyahu, which we will treat later.

I would also note that a pasuk seems to explicitly say that Yaakov is dead. In Vayechi, in Bereishit 50:15:
יד וַיָּשָׁב יוֹסֵף מִצְרַיְמָה הוּא וְאֶחָיו, וְכָל-הָעֹלִים אִתּוֹ לִקְבֹּר אֶת-אָבִיו, אַחֲרֵי, קָבְרוֹ אֶת-אָבִיו. 14 And Joseph returned into Egypt, he, and his brethren, and all that went up with him to bury his father, after he had buried his father.
טו וַיִּרְאוּ אֲחֵי-יוֹסֵף, כִּי-מֵת אֲבִיהֶם, וַיֹּאמְרוּ, לוּ יִשְׂטְמֵנוּ יוֹסֵף; וְהָשֵׁב יָשִׁיב, לָנוּ, אֵת כָּל-הָרָעָה, אֲשֶׁר גָּמַלְנוּ אֹתוֹ. 15 And when Joseph's brethren saw that their father was dead, they said: 'It may be that Joseph will hate us, and will fully requite us all the evil which we did unto him.'

The objection that Yaakov was mummified, mourned, and buried, is one that is brought up in the actual text describing the midrash:
(Taanit 5b):

רב נחמן ור' יצחק הוו יתבי בסעודתא א"ל רב נחמן לר' יצחק לימא מר מילתא א"ל הכי א"ר יוחנן אין מסיחין בסעודה שמא יקדים קנה לושט ויבא לידי סכנה בתר דסעוד א"ל הכי א"ר יוחנן יעקב אבינו לא מת א"ל וכי בכדי ספדו ספדנייא וחנטו חנטייא וקברו קברייא א"ל מקרא אני דורש שנאמר (ירמיהו ל) ואתה אל תירא עבדי יעקב נאם ה' ואל תחת ישראל כי הנני מושיעך מרחוק ואת זרעך מארץ שבים מקיש הוא לזרעו מה זרעו בחיים אף הוא בחיים

And a translation from a website called Beis Moshiach :)
Rav Nachman and Rav Yitzchok, two sages of the Talmud, sat together at a feast. Rav Nachman said to Rav Yitzchok, "Master, say a few words, if you would."

Rav Yitzchok responded: "So says Rebbi Yochanan: ‘there should be no talk at meals, lest food enter the windpipe instead of the esophagus, leading to mortal danger.’"

At the end of the meal, Rav Yitzchok continued: "So says Rebbi Yochanan: ‘Yaakov Avinu did not die.’"

Rav Nachman objected, "was it then in vain that the eulogizers eulogized and the embalmers embalmed and the gravediggers buried?!" [as the Torah describes].

Rav Yitzchok answered: "I derive this from Scripture, as it is said: ‘And you, my servant Yaakov, do not fear,’ says the L-rd, ‘and do not be dismayed, Yisroel, for you I will save from afar, and your offspring [I will save] from the land of their captivity.’ This verse associates Yaakov to his progeny to teach us that just as his offspring are alive, so is he alive."

One think that should immediately be noted is that Rav Nachman protested. He did lay aside critical thinking and just accept it, for it seemed quite strange, and further seemed to contradict the plain text of the Chumash. Alas, nowadays people are ready to accept much stranger midrashim without thinking about them and considering them in light of the text and common sensibilities. He also did not dismiss it as being "silly midrash" anyway so we might as well let it go, which alas is another common reaction nowadays.

How exactly Rav Yitzchak's response is a valid response is another, non-trivial question, to which I may not have a satisfactory answer.

One possibility which should be immediately considered is that he was aiming for a spit-take, "a comedic technique in which someone spits a beverage out of his or her mouth when he or she reacts to a statement."

After all, we must not ignore context, and context here is that they were in the course of a meal when Rav Nachman requested a dvar Torah. Rav Yitzchak replied that talking during the meal might lead to choking. After the meal, he offered the type of dvar Torah which could easily have led to choking.

On the other hand, both statements were cited from Rabbi Yochanan, so we must also consider that Rabbi Yochanan most likely did not state this in this context.

Others take this midrash, like many midrashim, to be non-literal, but rather reflecting some homiletic, symbolic, spiritual, or religious truth. Which perhaps is the meaning of the clarification that he was hemeneutically deducing this midrashically, from a verse in Yirmiyahu.

I would add, perhaps this is a local derasha to Yirmiyahu, telling us something there. Perhaps as midrash we should not care that it contradicts verses elsewhere, since midrash sometimes gives significance to close local reading at the expense of less narrow context. Also, perhaps what is meant is that Yaakov Avinu is not dead, now, in the time of Yirmiyahu to the present, even though he did in fact die in the past. See how JPS translates כִּי-מֵת אֲבִיהֶם above, as "that their father was dead." Similarly, Yaakov Avinu Lo Meit can mean that he is not dead, but not that in the past he didn't die. Perhaps some sort of resurrection? (Indeed, the previous pasuk is understood by some in Chazal to refer to King David's ressurrection and future reign.) Indeed, the derasha is that מקיש הוא לזרעו מה זרעו בחיים אף הוא בחיים, and is thus about being alive, and not about not having died.

Or perhaps the fact that there is a derasha supercedes simple peshat.

Note also that to show Yaakov Avinu is not dead (or didn't die), Rav Yitzchak needs to bolster his case with a pasuk. In the absence of such a derasha, such a wild statement would not have been accepted. Therefore, it would be difficult to extrapolate from this one case of Yaakov to others who have died but whose followers claim that he did not (such as Shabbetai Tzevi and other messianic figures).

We should consider exactly what is being deduced from Yirmiyahu 30:10:
י וְאַתָּה אַל-תִּירָא עַבְדִּי יַעֲקֹב נְאֻם-ה, וְאַל-תֵּחַת יִשְׂרָאֵל--כִּי הִנְנִי מוֹשִׁיעֲךָ מֵרָחוֹק, וְאֶת-זַרְעֲךָ מֵאֶרֶץ שִׁבְיָם; וְשָׁב יַעֲקֹב וְשָׁקַט וְשַׁאֲנַן, וְאֵין מַחֲרִיד. 10 Therefore fear thou not, O Jacob My servant, saith the LORD; neither be dismayed, O Israel; for, lo, I will save thee from afar, and thy seed from the land of their captivity; and Jacob shall again be quiet and at ease, and none shall make him afraid.
Interestingly, this whole section is somewhat messianic. At any rate, why should the derasha be "just as his offspring are alive, so is he alive." Where was aliveness mentioned anywhere in the pasuk? This seems somewhat random. We could as easily have said: just as his descendants wear red suspenders, so too he wears red suspenders. Or: just as they wear a yarmulke, so too Yaakov wears a yarmulke (which we have independent proof from the derasha on (Vayeitzei Yaakov" :) ).

I believe the answer is to be found in the context in that perek. Earlier we have:
ד וְאֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים, אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר ה אֶל-יִשְׂרָאֵל--וְאֶל-יְהוּדָה. 4 And these are the words that the LORD spoke concerning Israel and concerning Judah.
ז הוֹי, כִּי גָדוֹל הַיּוֹם הַהוּא--מֵאַיִן כָּמֹהוּ; וְעֵת-צָרָה הִיא לְיַעֲקֹב, וּמִמֶּנָּה יִוָּשֵׁעַ. 7 Alas! for that day is great, so that none is like it; and it is a time of trouble unto Jacob, but out of it shall he be saved.
The terms Yisrael and Yehuda seem to be used not about the Biblical personalities, but about the descendants, the nations of Israel and Yehuda, which split off from one another. Similarly, in verse 7, Yaakov is used presumably for the nation of Yisrael, or perhaps for both.

However, the address is to the singular Yaakov. Presumably the Biblical personality is being utilized, and addressed, as representative of his descendants.

On the peshat level, verse 10 is written in the style of other Biblical poetry, in that parallelism is used:

י וְאַתָּה אַל-תִּירָא עַבְדִּי יַעֲקֹב נְאֻם-ה, וְאַל-תֵּחַת יִשְׂרָאֵל--כִּי הִנְנִי מוֹשִׁיעֲךָ מֵרָחוֹק, וְאֶת-זַרְעֲךָ מֵאֶרֶץ שִׁבְיָם; וְשָׁב יַעֲקֹב וְשָׁקַט וְשַׁאֲנַן, וְאֵין מַחֲרִיד. 10 Therefore fear thou not, O Jacob My servant, saith the LORD; neither be dismayed, O Israel; for, lo, I will save thee from afar, and thy seed from the land of their captivity; and Jacob shall again be quiet and at ease, and none shall make him afraid.

אַל-תִּירָא עַבְדִּי יַעֲקֹב
וְאַל-תֵּחַת יִשְׂרָאֵל

So אַל matches וְאַל
יַעֲקֹב matches יִשְׂרָאֵל.

The word עַבְדִּי only occurs in the first but distributes to the other. This is called a ballast variant.

כִּי הִנְנִי מוֹשִׁיעֲךָ מֵרָחוֹק
means I will save you from afar
וְאֶת-זַרְעֲךָ מֵאֶרֶץ שִׁבְיָם
and while saving is not mentioned here, it distributes, and so I will save "your descendants" from the land of their captivity.

מֵרָחוֹק matches מֵאֶרֶץ שִׁבְיָם.

The end of the verse also displays Biblical parallelism. To this end, Yaakov is paired with, and matches, his descendants. On a peshat level, this is two ways of saying the same thing, the first using the Biblical figure of Yaakov symbolically, and the second unravelling the symbolism and making clear that this is addressed to the Benei Yisrael, Yaakov's descendants.

See what the midrash is noting. We would have thought that Yaakov is dead and is only being addressed symbolically. But on a midrashic level, poetic repetition is not an answer. Poetic repetition, or keifel inyan bemilim shonot, goes against the concept of omnisignificance, in which every word has meaning. Thus, there is a distiction to be made between Yaakov and his descendants. The first portion is addressed to Yaakov as an individual and the second portion to his descendants.

If this is truly being addressed to the Biblical person of Yaakov, then it is actually Yaakov, not the nation, who is to be saved from afar. That is, just as the descendants are live people to whom Yirmiyahu's words are being addressed, so too Yaakov is being used as an actual living person (and not a symbol) to whom Yirmiyahu is speaking.

This is the point of Rabbi Yochanan's derasha. I would even venture to say that he is not addressing parshat Vayechi at all, but rather just locally addressing Yirmiyahu perek 30. He probably would not say Yaakov Avinu Lo Met. This quote is attributed to him, but Rabbi Yochanan might have merely said "ואתה אל תירא עבדי יעקב נאם ה' ואל תחת ישראל כי הנני מושיעך מרחוק ואת זרעך מארץ שבים מקיש הוא לזרעו מה זרעו בחיים אף הוא בחיים."

Rav Yitzchak then might have reformulated this to increase the shock-value of the statement, perhaps to demonstrate why one should not talk during a meal. His answer of mikra ani doresh, I am darshening Scripture, followed by the specific derash, is an answer of the true statement of Rabbi Yochanan.


rashman said...

It seems from reading through the parsha that "Yaakov" never dies, rather it is "Yisrael" that dies. Obviously this is a bit vague but one can say that the terms Yaakov and Yisrael can take on different meanings in which Yisroel became the REAL new identity of the man himself and Yaakov is the Jewish inheritance he passed on to his offsrping. (And the term "Bnei Yisroel" is indicative of the fact that were are the SONS OF this MAN rather than "Bnei Yaakov" which really means either the ACTUAL sons of Yaakov or the sons of the inheritance of his theology etc wh/ is a little awkward)

To bolster this pshat - at the beginning of the parsha it begins with "Vayechi Yaakov" but as soon as it talks about his demise it switches to "Yisrael" and I think this is consistent throughout the parsha!

I know the Ksav Sofer mentions this concept based on the Gemara Kesubos 116a where the gemara seems to say that biblical texts do NOT use the term "Misa" by someone who has an heir who is euqal to him.

Do you know where this Ksav Sofer is, and who else says this pshat? Do you have any insights into this understaning? It is fascinating to me!!

Soccer Dad said...

That joke is taken from Anguished English.

Anonymous said...

This is an outstanding research that used to reply to an email distribution list authored by titled "LIFE WITHOUT DEATH". The Torah clearly states that Yaacov died.

The idea that Yaacov is still alive was a too beautiful metaphor and statement to be rejected. We believe in it now and who cares to read the sources...

Miha Ahornovitz


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