Efrat, Israel — And Jacob called to his sons and said “Gather together and I shall tell you what will befall you at the end of days” (Genesis 49:1).
The mesmerizing, magnificent and majestic historical parable of Jacob and his sons, Joseph and his brothers, comes to a riveting, but nevertheless peaceful climax-denouement this week. Each of his 12 sons gathers around the patriarch’s deathbed for a final assessment of their respective characters and blessing which will carry them into their future collectively as the Children of Israel. Jacob has matured as a result of his years of suffering and struggle. He is starkly honest in his short but pithy charges: “As fickle as quixotic as water …cursed be their anger for it is fierce.” Nevertheless, he paints a broad canvas which concludes with: “And to him shall be the gathering of the nations . . . until he shall apportion the spoils in the evening” when the enemies will be vanquished and the ultimate peace “Shiloh” will arrive. The picture which emerges is a bit nebulous and unclear. Still it makes clear that at the end of days, the brothers together will realize the mission of the Abrahamic covenant in a world blessed by compassionate righteousness and social justice.
Having said all of this, however, is it not strange that a Biblical portion whose central feature is Jacob’s deathbed scene with “Joseph falling on his (dead) father’s face weeping over him and kissing him” and “all of Egypt weeping (for Jacob) for 70 days” (50:2-4) opens with the word which is the name by which this portion is identified “Vayehi” — “And he lived?” It is not true! Jacob — Israel whom we have come to know, love and identify with is now dead and not alive. Similarly, the earlier portion which deals with Mother Sarah’s death and burial — and tells how “Abraham eulogized her and wept over her” is called “Hayei Sarah” — the life of Sarah. Is this not a strange pattern?
Dr. Eric Cohen, in his important study, “In the Shadow of Progress: Being Human in the Age of Technology,” makes the telling point that death, an inescapable fact of life is not tragic as long as one leaves behind individuals who will continue our narrative. Much the opposite, a death which is surrounded by those who will take the baton carried by the deceased, is a triumph and not a tragedy. In such a case, we may rightfully declare: “Death be not proud; You have been overcome.”
Let us hark back to the first time death is described in the Bible, when G-d punishes Adam for eating the forbidden fruit: “By the sweat of your brow shall you eat your bread until you return to the earth from which you were taken, because you are dust and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19). The very next verse, the penultimate verse in the chapter continues with what appears to be a non—sequitur: “And Adam named his wife Hava, for she was to be the mother of all life (Hay)” (3:20). Now if the significance of the name was to be Mother-of-all-life, her name should have been “Haya” and not “Hava”; Hava means the one who narrates, who expresses story, a prayer, or a lesson (See Abarbanel and Baal HaTurim ad loc). What does “Hava,” to narrate, have to do with “Haya,” to continue life?
But that is precisely the point: when G-d elected Abraham and charged him with the mission of bringing blessing (the message of compassionate righteousness and moral justice) (Gen 18:18,19) to all the families of the earth, He didn’t expect him to complete the job in his lifetime. He expected the march of the generations of people within the Covenant of Abraham to eventually succeed as a holy nation and a Kingship of Priest-Teachers to the world. The generation that succeeds will usher in Messianic Times; but they will not have done it by themselves. They are the result of the myriads of parents, teachers and enablers who came before them, and passed on the mission. The mother-of-all-life is the bearer of the narrative from generation to generation; in so far as you have a successor (one you have borne or one you have influenced) who takes over your baton, and sets out to transmit the as-yet-unfinished symphony, you continue to live as well.
The first time I visited Munich, Germany, I was struck by the fact that I didn’t see any children; when I commented on this at a public lecture, someone in the audience responded: “We Europeans have no patience for whatever makes noise and dirt which we cannot control.” As I pondered his retort, I realized that in the era of contraception, unless you have a compelling narrative to transmit, there is really no reason to have children; they take a lot of time, effort and money, and the results are far from certain. Most of Europe has a minus population growth — apparently because they do not feel compelled to continue their narrative. Hopefully, we Jews do feel compelled, and some day we shall conclude the symphony — at a time when the entire world will be blessed.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
Chancellor Ohr Torah Stone
Chief Rabbi — Efrat Israel