Rabbi David Etengoff
Dedicated to the sacred memories of my mother, Miriam Tovah bat Aharon HaKohane, father-in-law, Levi ben Yitzhak, sister, Shulamit bat Menachem, sister-in-law, Ruchama Rivka Sondra bat Yechiel, Chana bat Shmuel, Yehonatan Binyamin ben Mordechai Meir Halevi, Tikvah bat Rivka Perel, Gittel Malka bat Moshe, Alexander Leib ben Benyamin Yosef, the Kedoshim of Har Nof, Pittsburgh, and Jersey City, the refuah shlaimah of Mordechai HaLevi ben Miriam Tovah, and the health and safety of our brothers and sisters in Israel and around the world.
The passing of Ya’akov Avinu is the most poignant theme in our parasha: “And Ya’akov concluded commanding his sons, and he drew his legs [up] into the bed and expired and was brought unto his people. Yosef fell on his father's face, and he wept over him and kissed him.” (Sefer Bereishit 49:33-50:1, all Tanach and Rashi translations, The Judaica Press Complete Tanach with my emendations) In his Commentary on the Torah on this verse, Rashi (1040-1105) states the following: “But no mention is made of death in his regard, and our Rabbis of blessed memory said: ‘Our father Ya’akov did not die.’” This gloss is based on the following passage from Talmud Bavli, Ta’anit 5b:
After they had eaten, Rabbi Yitzḥak said to Rav Naḥman that Rabbi Yoḥanan said as follows: “Ya’akov Avinu lo mate--Our patriarch Ya’akov did not die.” Rav Naḥman asked him in surprise: “And was it for naught that the eulogizers eulogized him, and the embalmers embalmed him, and the buriers buried him?” Rabbi Yitzḥak replied to Rav Naḥman: “I am interpreting a verse, as it is stated: ‘Therefore do not fear, Ya’akov My servant, says Hashem, neither be dismayed, Yisrael, for I will save you from afar, and your descendants from the land of their captivity.’” (Sefer Yirmiyahu 30:10) This verse juxtaposes Ya’akov to his descendants: Just as his descendants are alive when redeemed, so too, Ya’akov himself is alive. (Translation, Koren-Davidson Talmud, Rav Adin Steinsaltz zatzal editor, with my emendations)
In his Commentary on the Talmud, Rashi elaborates on the statement, Ya’akov Avinu lo mate and maintains: “[That is,] he lives forever.” Moreover, “when the Egyptian embalmers embalmed him, they did this because they [erroneously] thought he was dead.” As such, Rashi suggests that Rabbi Yitzḥak’s interpretation of the pasuk in Sefer Yirmiyahu, “just as his descendants are alive when redeemed, so too, Ya’akov himself is alive,” should be taken at face value. (Rashi translations and brackets my own)
A markedly different approach to understanding our talmudic passage is found in Perush HaAggadot by Rabbi Shlomo ben Avraham ibn Aderet (the Rashba, 1235-1310):
How is it remotely possible to suggest that Rabbi Yoḥanan or Rabbi Yitzḥak based their understanding of what happened to Ya’akov Avinu more upon a midrashic interpretation of the verse in Sefer Yirmiyahu, with its hidden hints in the text, rather than upon explicit pasukim in the Torah that clearly explain that Ya’akov died, was eulogized, was embalmed, and was buried? Without a doubt, this is something that logic eschews and repudiates. (This and the following translations my own)
Rejecting Rashi’s gloss based on straightforward textual analysis, the Rashba instead suggests:
Rabbi Yitzḥak responded to him (Rav Naḥman) not in regard to the death of Ya’akov’s physical body, but rather in reference to [his ongoing spiritual presence among the Jewish people. As such, Rabbi Yitzḥak states]: “But, I am giving a midrashic interpretation to this text [in Yirmiyahu], and concluding, just as his (Ya’akov’s) descendants are alive [physically], so, too, is he alive [spiritually].” At that point, Rav Naḥman understood the allusions inherent in the essential principle Rabbi Yitzḥak was attempting to convey, and he was silent.
In my estimation, the Rashba’s interpretation of Rabbi Yitzḥak’s drasha is congruent with a well-known pasuk in Parashat Vayigash: “And Yosef said to his brothers, ‘I am Yosef. Is my father still alive?’” (Sefer Bereishit 45:3) It is impossible to explain Yosef’s “question” as a question in the literal sense. After all, in the verses leading up to this pasuk in Parashat Vayigash alone, Yehudah refers to av (father), aviv (his father), avi (my father) and avinu (our father) no less than 14 times! I believe, therefore, that Yosef is speaking b’ruach hakodesh (with Hashem’s Divine Spirit resting upon him) and proclaiming to his brothers that no matter what they have done, no matter how great the emotional pain they had inflicted upon Ya’akov through their errant actions: My father is alive, and will be so forevermore! (See the Abarbanel’s Commentary on the Torah, Sefer Bereishit 41:1, for other examples of Yosef acting b’ruach hakodesh)
Today, anti-Semitism has once again has reared its ugly head throughout the world. As a result, there is no better time to focus on the spiritual lesson contained in Rabbi Yitzḥak’s drasha, and remember the stirring phrase, “Ya’akov Avinu lo mate.” As Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach zatzal taught us all, “Am Yisrael chai! Am Yisrael chai, od Avinu chai—The Jewish people live, the Jewish people live, and our Father [Ya’akov] continues to live!”
Past drashot may be found at my blog-website: http://reparashathashavuah.org.
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