Yaakov Never Died: Memory vs. Mortality

What are we to make of the teaching of our sages that “Yaakov our Patriarch never died,” in light of his remains being embalmed and interred?

Yisrael is the name usually associated with this person’s most exalted state.  Why is  immortality attributed to Yaakov rather than Yisrael?

… and Yaakov lived in the land of Egypt for seventeen years … and the days grew near for Yisrael to die ….

— Bereishis 47:28,29

Yaakov completed his directives to his sons, he withdrew his feet onto the bed, breathed his last and was gathered in to his nation.

— Bereishis 49:33

… the physicians embalmed Yisrael … Egypt wept over him for seventy days

— Bereishis 50:2,3

They came to Goren Ha’Atad on the east bank of the Jordan. There they conducted a eulogy of exceeding vastness and gravitas and [Yoseph] observed a seven-day mourning for his father … His sons carried him to Canaan and buried him in the cave of Machpeilah field bordering Mamre …     

— Bereishis 50:10,13

“And you My slave Yaakov, do not fear” Says HaShem; “neither panic, O Yisrael; for, I will Redeem you from afar, and your offspring from the land of their captivity … “

— Yirmiyahui 30:10

 … Thus said Rav Yochanan, “Yaakov our patriarch never died.” Rav Nachman objected: “Did those who eulogized him, embalm him and inter him do so for naught?” — Rav Yochanan replied: “I derive this from a scriptural verse, as it is said, ‘And you My slave Yaakov, do not fear’ says HaShem; ‘neither panic, O Yisrael; for, I will Redeem you from afar, and your offspring from the land of their captivity.’ The verse connects him [Yaakov] to his offspring [Yisrael]; as his offspring will then be alive so he too will be alive.”
Rav Yitzchak said, “Whoever repeats [the name] Rachav, Rachav, immediately becomes a baal keri-one who is impure due to an emission.” Rav Nachman said to him: “I have repeated it and was not affected in any way.” Rav Yitzchak replied: “I speak only of one who knew her and was familiar with her likeness.”

— Taanis 5B

“Today” [the here-and-now world] is for doing them [the mitzvos] while tomorrow [the world to come] is for reaping the rewards [of their fulfillment.]

                       — Eruvin 22A

אָז יִבָּקַע -Then your light will burst forth as the Morningstar, and your cure will spring forth swiftly; and your righteousness will precede you, the glory of HaShem will gather you in.

— Yeshaya 58:8

Your dead will live, my remains will stand up. Awake and sing, you that dwell in the dust—for your dew is as the dew of light …  

— Yeshaya 26:19

The very name of our weekly sidra can be translated as “and Yaakov lived” and seems to echo the incredible contention of our sages that Yaakov never died. Another of the sages expressed his skepticism and incredulity over this, alluding to the various pesukim-verses; quoted in the gray oval above indicating that Yaakov was embalmed, bewailed, eulogized, mourned and interred; hardly the way to relate to a person still very much alive. Rashi ad locum explains that the embalmers et al merely imagined that Yaakov had died but he was in truth, still living. The Izhbitzer School offers several approaches to understand the non-death of Yaakov.

It is essential to remember that the soul is eternal … that it never dies.  The Mei HaShiloach explains that as such, what we refer to as “death” is not so much a termination of life as it is a radical, jarring — even harrowing — transition. In death, man must emigrate from olam hazeh-the temporal world of “this;” to olam haba-the world to come or the world that is continually “coming.” Even when one can transfer all of their assets, relocating to a faraway country can be a very intimidating change.  With a foreign language, new currency, radically dissimilar climate, a different form of government and unfamiliar art, social mores and architecture the new country may require years, if not decades or generations, of assimilation and acclimation before the new immigrant achieves a true sense of comfort, integration and belonging.  If most of the assets must be left behind in a forced expulsion or in fleeing from war or persecution the challenges of emigration become even more daunting.

These scenarios of emigration are poor allegories for the unimaginable yisurei kelitah– agonies of acclimation; that the soul must undergo when emigrating from olam hazeh to olam haba. A large portion of the first perek-chapter; of Mesilas Yesharim is preoccupied with the numerous metaphors of Chazal that describe the qualitative differences between the two worlds and their respective organizations of reality.

The Mei HaShiloach teaches that death, far from being the end of life, is instead the souls “transoceanic” voyage. Dying becomes the Ellis Island, the quarantining, the issuing-of-the-green-card, the ulpan, the immigrant absorption center, the blue-collar-to-Ivy-League-educated-professional and the tenement-to-suburbia upward social mobility; all rolled into one. Add to that the element that unlike immigrants, the soul, once adjusted to olam haba, has not one wit of nostalgia for the “old Country” and it is no wonder that we associate the emigration that is death with the idea of the past being dead, buried and forgotten.

Now imagine someone not emigrating from his country of origin but returning to it. E. g. an expat French diplomat stationed at the embassy in Washington D.C. but who had brought a master chef and a decade supply of truffles along with him who retired to the French Riviera; or a resident of Me’ah She’arim forced to a New York or Boston hospital for treatments unavailable in Israel who, unbeguiled by American profligacy, zealously maintained his rarified standards of Torah study, kashrus and tzniyus and who stuck to speaking Yerushalmi-inflected Yiddish until he had made a complete medical recovery and flew back to Jerusalem. Such people suffer no yisurei kelitah at all. Having lived all along as they do in La Rive Gauche or in Chareidi Yerushalayim, “adapting” to these geographical locales is seamless and effortless and can barely be called a transition at all.  What is true geographically, geopolitically and culturally is true metaphysically as well.

The Mei HaShiloach asserts that for the seventeen years that Yaakov lived in Egypt HaShem kivyachol-as it were; gave him droplets of the life of olam haba to taste. Yaakov is said to have never died — for death did not alter him as it does others who undergo death.  Passing through the portal of so called “death” from olam hazeh to olam haba was as effortless and inconsequential for Yaakov as changing into a new suit of clothes.

There is an odd segue, an apparent non-sequitur, in the gemara that expounds the principle that “Yaakov our patriarch never died.” There seems to be no correlation whatsoever between this principle and the teaching of Rav Yitzchak that follows it.  However, the Mei HaShiloach explains that the power of invoking the name of Rachav demonstrates how kevius-establishment and permanence; of a desire can transcend time and space. B’yod’ah u’makirah-when one who knew Rachav and was familiar with her likeness; the very memory of Rachav makes the past present and one reacts to the recollection as one would to the person.

In lashon kodesh– the holy tongue; Yaakov’s name is a word jumble using the same letters of the word kev(u)[i]a-established and permanent. Yaakov, having once tasted the desire-stimulating droplets of olam haba in olam hazeh made olam haba kevua within his olam hazaeh. While all of us have heard of olam haba and most of us have a deep faith in our speculative conceptual notions of what it might be, Yaakov was a yod’ah u’makirah of the world that is continually coming. While still living in the definitively temporal Egypt, in his heart and mind Yaakov maintained the kevius of these “memories” of olam haba — recollecting not what had been … but what was yet to come. In so doing he made the future present. That which is truly established and permanent in a man’s heart and mind is real and present; memory creates imminence.  For Yaakov the qualitative chasm dividing olam hazeh and olam haba evaporated.

Based on a Zohar (Emor 54A) the Izhbitzer cryptically adds that the passuk in Yeshaya 58:8 is referencing this aspect of Yaakov. The passuk opens with the words “az yibaka-then will burst forth;” az references olam haba and yibaka is, again, a word jumble using the letters of Yaakov’s name.  I’d like to hazard a guess at his meaning. For others i.e. for those who die, death is the requisite grueling transoceanic voyage and long, arduous acclimation period that new immigrant souls undergo in order to transition to a new reality. Perhaps, because Yaakov lived olam haba while still breathing the atmosphere of olam hazeh and because his relocation there was a deathless, effortless mere “change-of-suits,” the revelation of his entire spiritual inner-being is immediate.  Yaakov’s brilliant light burst forth abruptly, the full flowering of his healing springs swiftly.

Many meforshim-commentaries; have noted that although Yaakov “breathed his last” the passuk never explicitly states that he died.  Instead; he was “gathered in to his nation.” In light of the Izhbitzers approach perhaps this “gathering in to his nation,” is just another iteration of “the glory of HaShem gathering him in,” as a result of his substituting the rapid bursting forth of his luminosity and wellness for the protracted and strenuous transition of dying.

His disciple, the Lubliner Kohen, quotes the Izhbitzer as teaching that for all of bnei Yisrael-the children of Israel/ the Jewish People; death is not what it appears to be.  The hermeneutical rule of a hekesh-linking two words or concepts adjacent to one another in scripture; creates a two-way equation — ein hekesh l’mechtzah. So, while the gemara (Taanis 5B) derives the non-death of Yaakov from the life of his offspring (the dead cannot be released from captivity as dying would have already liberated them) the Izhbitzer taught that ein hekesh l’mechtzah compels us to apply “Yaakov our patriarch never died,” to his offspring.  No Jew ever dies.  What appears to be death is, for bnei Yisrael, no more than sleep. This is what the prophet Yeshaya meant when he foretold, “Awake and sing, you that dwell in the dust. “ Although he is prophetically addressing those that dwell in the dust, AKA the dead, he is waking them … not resurrecting them.

Quoting Rav Saadia Gaon the Mabit in Sefer Beis Elokim explains that while quantitatively deeper and more corrosive than sleep, death is not qualitatively different than sleep. If it were, the so-called “resurrected” would be new people with no memories of, nor any connection to, the ones who had previously lived and died.  Just as a sleeper who awakes remembers all that preceded sleep, so too will the resurrected remember their household’s, personal histories and all the Torah that they learned while alive the first time, though millennia may have elapsed between the drowsiness of the death-slumber and alert wakefulness of resurrection.

Rav Saadia Gaon avers that all forgetfulness is a byproduct of sensory perception and is more pronounced in the elderly whose sensory organs degrade with age. The soul itself never forgets. While most meforshim translate the words in Tehillim 104:29 toseph rucham yigva’un as “You [HaShem] Gather-In their souls as they perish” the Mabit renders it “You Add to their souls as they perish.” The postmortem Enhancement of the souls is the Restoration of memory, of total recall.  All that was forgotten as a result of the body-contained senses will be recalled when the soul is unbound from the mortal body and will not be lost when the soul reawakens in an immortal resurrected body.

This concludes the Izhbitzer, is what we pray for at every siyum masechta-conclusion of a tractate; “our mind is on you, Tractate X and your mind is on us; we will not forget you, Tractate X and you will not forget us – neither in this world nor in the world that is continually coming.”

~adapted from Mei HaShiloach Vayechi D”H vaye’e’sof raglav
Pri Tzaddik Vayikra Lag Ba’Omer 3 D”H v’shamati
Beis Elokim shaar hayesodos 60 D”H aval