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.