Parshat Vayechi תשפא
I heard this lesson from my Rebbe, Harav Moshe Shapiroזצ”ל , who heard it from his Rebbe, Rav Elyiahu Dessler זצ”ל.
This week’s portion, Vayechi, is the last chapter in the book of Bereshit – Genesis. It concludes with Yaakov’s death and his burial in Israel, and the death of his son Yosef.
In his last comment to the book of Bereshit, Nachmanides writes (49:23):
רמב”ן על בראשית פרק מט פסוק לג
השלים הכתוב ספר בראשית שהוא ספר היצירה בחדוש העולם ויצירת כל נוצר, ובמקרי האבות כולם שהם כעין יצירה לזרעם, מפני שכל מקריהם ציורי דברים לרמוז להודיע כל העתיד לבא להם
This concludes the book of Bereshit, which is the book of Creation of the world and everything in it, and the events that occurred to the forefathers, which are like a creation for their children. This is because all of the events that happened to them (the forefathers) create a template that hints to all that will transpire with their progeny in the future.
This concept is called מעשה אבות סימן לבנים – The deeds of our forefathers are a sign for their children. Throughout his commentary on Bereshit, Nachmanides points out examples of this phenomenon, and at the beginning of this portion he reveals to us, that this final chapter of Bereshit corresponds to the last chapter in Jewish history, the chapter that we are writing now – the end of days. When Nachmanides’ commentary to the Torah was first printed, the following quote (on Genesis 47:28) was censored by the gentiles, and has only been recently restored.
(כח) ויחי יעקב בארץ מצרים שבע עשרה שנה. כבר הזכרתי (לעיל מג יד) כי רדת יעקב למצרים הוא גלותינו היום ביד החיה הרביעית (דניאל ז ז) רומי הרשעה, כי בני יעקב הם עצמם סבבו רדתם שם במכירת יוסף אחיהם, ויעקב ירד שם מפני הרעב, וחשב להנצל עם בנו בבית אוהב לו, כי פרעה אוהב את יוסף וכבן לו, והיו סבורים לעלות משם ככלות הרעב מארץ כנען, כמו שאמרו (לעיל מז ד) לגור בארץ באנו כי אין מרעה לצאן אשר לעבדיך כי כבד הרעב בארץ כנען והנה לא עלו, אבל ארך עליהם הגלות, ומת שם ועלו עצמותיו, וזקני פרעה ושריו העלוהו, ועשו עמו אבל כבד
28) I have already mentioned that Yaakov’s going down to Egypt set the precedent for our current exile in the hands of the “fourth beast” (a reference to Daniel 7:7), viz, Rome –because (1) Yaakov’s sons were the ones who caused Yaakov to go to Egypt by selling Yosef their brother; (2) Yaakov went down because of a famine and thought to save himself through his son Yosef, who was beloved to Pharaoh like a son; (3) They also thought to leave Egypt as soon as the famine in Israel ended, as it says in the verse (47:4), “We came to sojourn in the land (Egypt), for there is no grazing for our cattle because of the famine in Israel.” But, in the end, they never left; rather, the exile continued on and on; (4) Yaakov died there; (5) Pharaoh’s elders and officers took him to Israel; and (6) they mourned heavily for him.
וכן אנחנו עם רומי ואדום – אחינו הסיבונו ביאתינו בידם, כי כרתו ברית עם הרומיים ואגריפס המלך האחרון לבית שני ברח אליהם לעזרה, ומפני הרעב נלכדו אנשי ירושלים, והגלות ארך עלינו מאד, לא נודע קצו כשאר הגליות ואנחנו בו כמתים אומרים יבשו עצמותינו נגזרנו לנו, ויעלו אותנו מכל העמים מנחה לה’, ויהיה להם אבל כבד בראותם כבודנו ואנחנו נראה בנקמת ה’, יקימנו ונחיה לפניו
The same applies to our exile in the hands of Rome – Edom: (1) Our very own brothers caused us to fall in their hands by making a treaty with the Romans (Yehuda the Maccabee and his brother Yonatan who renewed it) and Agrippa ll, the last king of Israel, who ran to the Romans for help; (2) Jerusalem was captured because of a famine; and (3) the exile continues unabated with no end in sight, unlike the other exiles, which had a limited length. (4) In this exile, we are like dead, saying that our bones are dry, we are cut off, (Ezekiel 37:11). (5) The other nations of the world will eventually exalt us above all the other nations – an offering to Hashem, and at that time, when the nations of the world see our honor, (6) they will mourn greatly, and we will see Hashem’s revenge against them, may Hashem keep us alive.
The similarities shared by the exile to Egypt and the exile that we are in now, are striking. In both cases the exile was the product of their own actions, the result of a famine, and extended beyond all expectations. Based on the concept that the deeds of our forefathers are a sign for their children, Nachmanides reveals that the final events that transpired with Yaakov in Egypt would be a model for how events will transpire when Mashiach comes and this exile comes to its end.
The return of Yaakov’s body to Israel and his burial by the “elders and officers of Pharaoh” is predictive of the return of the Jewish nation to the land of Israel after the long exile. When the Mashiach comes, we will also be returned to Israel by the other nations as it is predicted by the prophet Isaiah (66:20). The dead body of Yaakov symbolizes that, at that time, the Jewish nation will resemble a body without a soul. They will appear to be dead – dry bones. Mashiach’s coming will restore Hashem’s kingdom to the world thus bringing great honor to Hashem’s nation, and causing the nations of the world great mourning.
There seems, however, to be an obvious contradiction here. When Yaakov was taken to Israel to be buried, he was indeed dead; whereas when we will return to Israel, Nachmanides says we will only appear to be dead. Why the discrepancy?
The answer lies in an intriguing discussion in the Talmud (Taanit 5b).
אמר רבי יוחנן יעקב אבינו לא מת. אמר ליה, וכי בכדי ספדו ספדנייא וחנטו חנטייא וקברו קברייא אמר ליה מקרא אני דורש שנאמר 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
Rabbi Yitzchak quoted Rabbi Yochanan who said, “Yaakov our forefather never died!” Rabbi Nachman responded. “Was it for naught that the eulogizers eulogized him, the embalmers embalmed him, and the buriers buried him?” (The Torah reports that Yaakov was eulogized, embalmed, and buried.) Rabbi Yitzchak said, “There is a clear verse in scripture that teaches this (Jeremiah 30:10).
(י) וְאַתָּה אַל תִּירָא עַבְדִּי יַעֲקֹב נְאֻם יְדֹוָד וְאַל תֵּחַת יִשְׂרָאֵל כִּי הִנְנִי מוֹשִׁיעֲךָ מֵרָחוֹק וְאֶת זַרְעֲךָ מֵאֶרֶץ שִׁבְיָם
10) ‘But as for you, do not fear, My servant Jacob,’ says Hashem, ‘and do not be afraid, Israel; for behold, I am saving you from distant places, and your descendants from the land of their captivity,’
The verse equates Yaakov to his descendants, therefore, just as his descendants are alive, so too Yaakov is alive.”
Because the verse in Jeremiah refers to Yaakov/Yisroel and his descendants in one breath, we see that Yaakov is equated to his children, and that he lives-on through their existence. Avraham and Yitzchak did not entirely comprise the entire Jewish nation, for Avraham had Yishmael and Yitzchak had Esav, both of whom went off to start other nations. Only Yaakov wholly contained the entire Jewish nation because all of his children were completely righteous and carried his essence into the Jewish nation that came forth from them. So, when Yaakov’s body was brought to Israel for burial, he also only looked dead, but in reality, he was still alive through his children. Together, they embodied the soul of their father Yaakov.
What was the essence of Yaakov’s soul? What did he stand for?
Yaakov is called the בחיר שבאבות – the “most special of the forefathers.” He embodied the best qualities of Avraham and Yitzchak, and blended them with his own special qualities into a perfect balance. He had reached such a high level of perfection that his qualities were a mirror image of Hashem’s. This perfection is what enabled Yaakov to father 12 perfectly righteous children. Although they were very different from each other, for each had inherited a different one of Yaakov’s qualities, together they comprised the complete essence of their father.
How did Yaakov reach such heights? Through the constant study of Torah. The Zohar (Kabbalah) teaches us that Hashem’s essence is hidden in the Torah.
The Ten Commandments start with the word אנכי (translated as I) (Exodus 20:2).
(ב) אָנֹכִי יְדֹוָד אֱלֹקֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִיךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים
2) I am the Lord your G-d who took you out of Egypt, from the house of bondage.
The Sages pick up on the word אנכי instead of the more common word אני. Why the special word? They answer, that it is an abbreviation for the following four words.
אנא נפשי כתבית יהבית – Hashem says to us, I, my soul, have written down, and given to you.
Hashem has placed His soul, so-to-speak, in the Torah. When we learn Hashem’s Torah, we are connecting our souls with His soul. There is no deeper and more meaningful connection that we can have with Hashem. Not only that! The more Torah we have within us, the more G-dliness we have. When you have Torah in you, you have pure spirituality in you. This is why the holy Sages are called “Living Sefer Torahs.”
Yaakov’s quality was אמת – truth. He was the one who spent his life studying Hashem’s truth, the Torah. The love of Torah and Hashem burned intensely within his soul, and this was his soul.
This is embodied in Yitzchak’s statement about Yaakov, הקול קול יעקב – “The voice is the voice of Yaakov” – Yaakov’s voice studying the Torah and praying to Hashem are his essence. Yaakov’s strong voice in Torah and prayer was the product of the fire of Torah that burned so strongly within his soul.
All of Yaakov’s children shared this love of Torah and dedication to Hashem. Thus, through his children, Yaakov’s legacy continues. Hence, although when Yaakov was taken to Israel for burial in מערת המכפלה – Kiryat Arba to be placed with Leah, Adam and Chava, Avraham and Sara, and Yitzchak and Rivka, it looked like he was dead; in reality, though, he was still very much alive. It requires a discerning eye, but although it was just his body, Yaakov was alive then, and continues to live today, in the Jewish nation that carries his name.
Unfortunately, a cursory look at the Jewish nation today reveals that so many Jews carry the name “Jew” in body but are lacking in soul. There are relatively few whose souls burn with the fire of Torah. So many in our nation, look like dry bones, with no Jewish life left in them and no future. If nothing changes, in just one generation, these people won’t even call themselves Jewish. Their Jewish identity will have vanished in the sea of assimilation. They fit perfectly with Nachmanides’ description of the Jewish nation that Mashiach will redeem, he will come to Yaakov’s body without its soul.
We are the Jews who represent Yaakov’s soul today with the fire of Torah burning in our souls, as did Yaakov’s. Our task is to restore Yaakov’s soul to him, to give life to Yaakov’s seemingly dead body. How do we accomplish that?
There is only one way. To ignite the fire of Torah in the souls of our brothers and sisters. To teach and study Torah with them so the voice of Yaakov becomes stronger as we infuse him with life. As long as his voice is strong, he is alive and well.
We saw this in action after the Holocaust. After losing 6,000,000 of its people in such a horrific, sadistic, and dehumanizing way, what did the Jewish nation look like? Emaciated, crippled, and seemingly broken, the Jewish nation looked and felt like it was dead – dry bones – down and out, with no hope for a future. Like Yaakov, it looked like a body without a soul.
But, there were many holy learned Rabbis who miraculously survived the Holocaust, with the fire of Torah burning in their souls who went on to establish Yeshivot, high level academies, to teach Torah. These yeshivot were established primarily in Israel as well as in our wonderful country, the United States of America, and groomed the next generation of Torah scholars, teachers and Rabbis. The rest is history. In the Torah community, Yaakov is very much alive, and Judaism thrives in great part because of the proliferation of Torah study. These teachers have succeeded in igniting the fire of Torah in their students who have carried the torch forward and are doing the same. They are igniting the fire of Torah in the hearts of their students returning the soul to Yaakov’s dead body.
As we await the conclusion of Nachmanides’ prophetic commentary – the coming of Mashiach and the complete redemption, the restoration of Hashem’s honor through the Jewish nation, we now know what will hasten his coming: We must restore the soul to the body of Yaakov by teaching Torah to every Jew.