M'oray Ha'Aish Parshat Vayechi: The Death of Jacob
click here to jump to start of article
Join Our Newsletter

Get latest articles and videos with Jewish inspiration and insights​




Vayechi(Genesis 47:28-50:26)

The Death of Jacob

This Torah portion differs nofrom the ones we have examined thus far. The beginning of the other portions is generally delineated by a new paragraph or at least an indentation in the text of the hand-written Torah scroll, but this portion is satum, "closed." Rashi quotes the Midrash, which seeks to explain this idiosyncrasy:

Why is this portion closed? The death of Jacob caused a closing of the eyes and hearts of Israel, due to the troubles of the oppression which began (at this time). Alternatively: (Jacob) wished to reveal the end of days to his children, but it was closed to him. [Rashi 47:28, based on Breishit Rabba 96:1]

The death of Jacob represents the end of an era. With his demise, the patriarchal age comes to a close and a new generation will begin. This event takes place at the end of the Book of Genesis, literally as well as ideologically. Rashi's comments establish this Torah portion as not only the close of a book, but a closed book.

At such a time, Jacob felt that it was appropriate to reveal to his children what awaits them and their descendants in the future.

And Jacob called his sons and said 'Gather, and I will tell you, what will happen to you in the end of days ..." [Genesis 49:1-3]

When Jacob gathers his children, his stated intention to inform them of events in the future. But, instead, he blesses them. It seems that at the moment this revelation is to take place, Jacob's clairvoyance eludes him and this frightens him. The Talmud describes the scene:

Jacob wished to reveal the ketz, the end of days, but the Shechinah (God's presence) left him. He said, "Perhaps there is an inadequacy in my bed (offpsring) like Abraham who fathered Ishmael, or my father Isaac who fathered Esau." [Pesachim 56a]

When Jacob's desire to share his knowledge was frustrated, he feared that this was indicative of some lack in his children, a portent of bad things to come in the future. As we have seen in earlier portions, the children of Jacob are no longer individuals, they represent the Nation of Israel. If something is lacking in Jacob's children, the repercussions will be felt by the entire nation down the road. For Jacob such a thought is terrifying -- on his deathbed, it is too late for him to rectify the problem. In his mind, he has failed.

The Talmud connects Jacob's fear with the errant offspring of his father and grandfather. Why should Jacob have expected that his children would be greater than his revolutionary grandfather's or his saintly father's? If Abraham could father an Ishmael, and Isaac could father an Esau, why would Jacob expect that his own "bed be complete"?

This question is closely related to the Kabbalistic discussion of the three patriarchs, the Avot. Why were there three, and not two, or for that matter six? What delineates the era of the patriarchs, which, as we have noted, comes to an end at the end of the Book of Genesis and this Torah portion?

Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were not merely three highly accomplished spiritual individuals. They formed a dynasty, in Hebrew shalshelet, which is derived from shalosh, meaning "three." According to Kabbalistic thought, each of the three patriarchs created a different spiritual awareness in the world, each becoming one of the three pillars necessary to support the establishment of the nation. Abraham is identified with chesed or "kindness." Isaac is identified with the opposites of kindness, namely gevurah or "strength" and din or "justice." And Jacob is identified with the merging of the above -- tiferet or "beauty." Thus, the patriarchs represent (to borrow the Hegalian model) thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. Once synthesis is achieved, the nation can emerge.

There is, however, another side to this coin, for in addition to the synthesis, another philosophical thread is woven through our history. Abraham also fathered Ishmael, who according to the Sages represented the counterfeit of his father. Instead of truly emulating Abraham, Ishmael imitated his father in a superficial, external manner.

The main trait of kindness is giving, but even such an exalted gesture can have counterfeit applications. The act of giving is godly, but it too must have its limitations. Unlimited giving can be insidious and can lead to immorality and sexual licentiousness. Thus, even giving must be governed by some type of moral system. Herein lies the Sages indictment of Ishmael -- the eldest son of Abraham made cynical use of his father's teachings. If Abraham taught the idea of love, Ishmael taught "free love." If Abraham taught that we should love our neighbors as our selves, then Ishmael taught that we should love our neighbors' wives or husbands. The counterfeit of kindness -- or, in the language of the mystics, the klipat chesed -- was sexual immorality.

Isaac endeavored to create a spiritual balance to his father's kindness. His greatness lay in his strength, a second aspect of God. The Jewish teachings regarding strength are encapsulated in the words of the Sages:

Who is considered strong? He who controls his desires. [Pirkei Avot 4:2]

As God controlled His infinity to create a finite world, man must control himself, and a beautiful world will emerge. The counterfeit, or klipat gevurah, is the individual who tries to control or dominate others. The worst-case scenario is when the desire to control actually leads to bloodshed. This was Esau's forte, as Rashi explains:

He was red, this is a sign that he will spill blood. [Rashi 25:25]

Esau, like his uncle Ishmael, was superficial. He did not follow his father's teachings. He twisted the idea of strength into a mandate to control, and ultimately to take life. The fact that Esau took wives from the daughters of Ishmael should come as no surprise. These two had more in common than mere ancestry, and the result was the combination of their negative forces.

Jacob, on the other hand, internalized the positive aspects of the teachings of Abraham and Isaac, and he came to represent the combination of their two traits, chesed and geruvah, kindness and strength, in the third philosophical pillar, tiferet, beauty. The trait of tiferet sees beauty in all things, in differences and distinctions, and is able to create a harmonious synthesis. Jacob, who becomes Israel, the nation, must be able to combine all sorts of ideas, experiences, outlooks.

Once this synthesis is in place the nation should emerge. Jacob's bed should be complete. In Jacob's children we do not find any counterfeit.

There is a klipa within the newly-emergent nation, however -- those responsible for the worship of the Golden Calf. They were not the true descendants of Jacob, rather impostors, who joined the people of Israel in their victorious march out of Egypt. They had only a superficial grasp of the philosophical underpinnings of Judaism. To them, the trait of tiferet -- the all-inclusive outlook -- encompassed all types of worship. Their perversion of Israel's ability to synthesize allowed them to embrace idol-worship.

While tiferet is the inclusion of many different attributes in the service and worship of the One God, idolatry is the inclusion of other "gods", which are, in fact, non-entities. Time and again throughout Jewish history, this perversion of tiferet resurfaces and the writings of the prophets tell of many "movements" within Judaism which attempted to "synthesize" worship of various gods with Jewish worship. This motif, which began at the foot of Mount Sinai, was especially strong during the Hellenistic period, and continues to modern times.

The spiritual negativity created by Ishmael, Esau, and the worshippers of the Golden Calf is the power of the klipot of our forefathers' teachings. Herein lie the sources for sexual immorality, murder, and idolatry, which eventually caused the destruction of the First Temple. When the Jews follow the counterfeited teachings instead of internalizing the true messages represented by the philosophical pillars of our nationhood, their mandate to lead by example comes to an end. Then, the Temple is destroyed, the Commonwealth of Israel laid to waste, and the people scattered.

We may now understand Jacob's fear; he thinks that perhaps he has misunderstood the spiritual dynamics of the nascent nation. Perhaps among his children there is one who is counterfeit. If this is the case, perhaps it is not time for the nation to be formed.

Jacob's sons respond to their father's fear:

His sons said to him, "Sh'ma Israel Adonai Elohenu, Adonai Echad, Listen Israel, the Lord is Our God, the Lord is One." They said "Just as in your heart there is only One God, so, too, in our heart there is only One." At that moment Jacob responded and said, "Boruch Shem Kevod Malchuto L'olam Va'ed, Blessed be the honorable name of His kingship forever and ever." [Pesachim 56a]

With these words, they assure their father that they truly accept the One God. There is, however, a deeper meaning behind their choice of declaration. By saying the Sh'ma, they are actually reminding their father of another episode in his life, and thus trying to communicate something very specific to Jacob. Let us now look at that episode.

According to the Midrash, during the entire period that Jacob thought Joseph was dead, Jacob was devoid of clairvoyance -- the Shechinah, the presence of God, had left him. When Jacob thought that Joseph was dead, he also thought that he had failed in his mission, for it had earlier been revealed to him that if none of his sons died before him, he would avoid hell. [Rashi 37:35]. With Joseph apparently dead, Jacob spends his years awaiting his bitter fate in the "World to Come." When the message arrives that Joseph lives, the Torah comments:

The spirit of Jacob their father lived." [Genesis 45:27]

Rashi explains that the Shechinah which had left Jacob had returned to him.

When Jacob and Joseph reunite after twenty-two years, the Torah describes their embrace:

"He (Joseph) saw him (Jacob), he fell on his neck, and he cried." [Genesis 46:29]

After twenty-two years, father and son are reunited. We understand why Joseph cried, but what was Jacob doing? Rashi answers:

Jacob did not fall on the neck of Joseph, and he didn't kiss him. Our Sages explain that he (Jacob) was saying the Sh'ma. (Rashi 46:29)

Jacob's response to seeing his long-lost son was the recitation of the Sh'ma. At first glance this seems strange; he has not seen his son in all these years, and now, at the moment of reunion, Jacob feels that it is time to say the Sh'ma! But a closer look at the words of the Sh'ma will explain Jacob's response.

Whereas a statement of faith in One God, or even a statement of praise and thanks to the Almighty for reuniting him with his beloved son, could have consisted of only the words "the Lord is Our God, the Lord is One," Jacob added something more -- the words "Listen Israel."

When, years later, the sons of Jacob respond to him on his deathbed with the same words, it is clear that they are addressing their father. But why did Jacob say "Listen Israel"? Could he have been addressing himself? In fact, Jacob addressed not himself, but the entire Nation of Israel, the totality of the Jewish people, who were at that moment reunited. Upon seeing Joseph alive, Jacob knew that the nation was complete, and he recited the Sh'ma.

With this background, we can understand why his children say the Sh'ma when, on his deathbed, he loses the Shechinah again. They wish to assure him that his fears are groundless, his bed is complete, the nation is complete.

However, there is another aspect of the recitation of the Sh'ma. The Michilta teaches:

Israel declares "Listen Israel, the Lord is Our God, the Lord is One" and the Ruach HaKodesh, the "Holy Spirit," cries out and says from Heaven "Who is like Your Nation Israel, a singular nation on earth." [I Chronicles 17:7, Michilta Bishalach section 3]

Just as the Jews are dedicated to God, so God is dedicated to the Jewish people. The response of Heaven to our Sh'ma is the declaration of nationhood.

In response to his sons, Jacob shows he understands this as he responds: "Boruch Shem Kivod Malchuto L'olam Va'ed - Blessed be the honorable Name of His Kingship forever and ever."

This declaration was later said on Yom Kippur by the Jewish people, when they would hear the Divine Name, YHVH, pronounced by the High Priest, the utterance of the ineffable name being in itself a manifestation of the Shechinah.

When Jacob realizes that his children are complete, "one nation," he utters the words the entire nation will later use to respond to the Shechinah.

Now the Book of Genesis comes to its end. Slavery and eventual exodus from Egypt will follow, and destiny will lead the Jews to Mount Sinai. The Sh'ma will remain the "pledge of allegiance" of this nation. Over the generations, many will declare it in all sorts of situations, and the Shechinah will always take notice.

Perhaps the most famous recitation of the Sh'ma took place in another death scene in the year 135, following the destruction of the Temple by the Romans:

When they (the Romans) took Rabbi Akiva out to be (tortured and) executed it was time to say the Sh'ma ... he prolonged the word "One" until his soul departed in "One." [Brachot 61b]

When the Romans tortured Rabbi Akiva, The Talmud notes it was "time to say the Sh'ma." In other words, it was time to uplift the nation from the oppression of the Romans -- it was time to infuse the people with a sense of nationhood.

Rabbi Akiva's Sh'ma echoes throughout the generations; indeed, it has been heard by Jews in countless difficult situations, and it gave them the strength to make some impossible decisions.

It is fascinating to note that the name Akiva is derived from the Hebrew Yaakov or Jacob, and that both were married to women named Rachel, who in turn both excelled in self-sacrifice. The Sh'ma of Rabbi Akiva is, without a doubt, connected to the Sh'ma of Jacob.

For some reason, God chose that the "end of days" not be revealed by Jacob. This was not an indication of unworthiness, either on the part of Jacob or of his children. Rather, it was an indication that some books must remain closed.

Rabbi Akiva was also involved in speculation about the end of days and he tried to orchestrate its speedy arrival. In the end, Rabbi Akiva failed in bringing the Messiah, but this did not discourage him from saying the Sh'ma loud and clear, so that it was heard both in this world and in heaven. The Talmud tells us that when Rabbi Akiva uttered the Sh'ma:

... a voice came from heaven and said, "Fortunate is Rabbi Akiva whose soul departed in "One" ... A voice came from heaven and said, "Fortunate is Rabbi Akiva, for you are invited to the World to Come." [Brachot 61b]

This ends the Book of Genesis.

Chazak chazak, v'nitchazek!

Published: January 17, 2000

Give Tzedakah! Help Aish.com create inspiring
articles, videos and blogs featuring timeless Jewish wisdom.

Submit Your Comment:

  • Display my name?

  • Your email address is kept private. Our editor needs it in case we have a question about your comment.


  • * required field 2000
Submit Comment
stub