Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah – Vayechi
The early sage Reish Lakish (3rd century C.E.) wrote, “The days of the righteous die, but they do not die. . . . It does not say “Israel drew near to die,” but “the days of Israel drew near to die.” (Midrash Rabbah) When Jacob’s physical days on earth conclude, Torah’s language is, at best, ambiguous. The Text does no directly say that he died, it says, “The days drew near,” and “He gathered his feet into the bed, and expired, and was gathered to his people.” Of Abraham and Isaac, the text uses the word for death, so it is somewhat of a textual anomaly that, as for Jacob, the text does not.
Of course, these types of anomalies stand at the root of all biblical commentary. Whether those who edited/redacted/wrote the Biblical texts intended for these openings is up for debate, but we understand that our rabbinic tradition begins with taking these openings and making the Torah’s overriding ethical teachings relevant in each generation.
I deeply hold to the belief that when people leave their earthly course that only a piece of them “dies.” The human body ceases to function; the shell that carried a person’s “being” dies. The essence of that person continues to influence the world and often in ways greatly more profoundly than he/she did prior to this transition. We need look no further than the very sages we speak about in these Biblical texts for examples. Of course, as our own lives mature, and we stand better equipped to understand the lessons people tried to impart to us in our youth, these teachers must get credit for the “who” we become. My father and I really had no relationship for many years: I learned he died long after his funeral. Twenty-eight years later, the positive and negative lessons of his life inform me deeply in my own.
As I read this week’s portion, the euphemisms for death struck me. Why the change for Jacob? Why do we speak of his transition differently? I was not surprised to find myself not being the first to ask this question. Reish Lakish picked up on it. The Talmud picked up on it. Therein, we read a debate between sages about how Jacob never really died. Remember that Jacob became “Israel” after wrestling with God at the river Jabbok. Effectively, they argue that even as Jacob’s body gave out; his essence lives on. Hence, Israel lives on. This debate has nothing to do with the political state of Israel in modernity. Rather, it speaks to the etymology of the word Israel; “One who wrestles with faith.” While individual religions try to own this word exclusively, the entire western religious world roots in this ancestral wrestling match. Judah is but one of the tribes of Israel, and each of these traditions stems from this original spiritual inheritance.
From tradition, we sing, “Am Yisrael Chai! Ode Avinu Chai!” The people of Israel are eternal, and our ancestry is lives on. In my heart, I always believed that faith keeps people alive even when their bodies can no longer house their soul. It is good to know that my tradition has always held strong to this belief. With this affirmation comes a challenge. How can we say that we love someone heart and soul, and then not continue to learn from them? In the Shinto tradition, ancestors earn a spot of divinity and become part of a worship experience. It is not so much that they “are” God, but that their continued role in life continues to ethically and morally nurture and challenge all who come after them. No differently (in a practical sense) we always name the teacher from whom any lesson flows. We symbolize this tradition in our study and our prayer. In every case, though, we have to ask if we are giving honor or dishonor to those who came before us? Even if they left us negative lessons, have we learned from them and acted more appropriately?
I stand concerned over the way in which people engage today. I have to ask often if our religious framers, if our nation’s founders if our family patriarchs and matriarchs would approve of the way in which we speak at each other. I have to believe that if more people asked this question before we spewed at each other, fewer people would spew at each other. Our government is supposed to represent all people, not just the politically powerful ones. Our religions demand that we love our neighbor at least as much as we love ourselves and that the stranger amongst us is that very neighbor. How do we read scripture and then alienate each other? It is time to remember that those who came before us are still with us – we need to listen. Shabbat shalom.