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Life, Death and Reality

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Jacob concluded commanding his sons. He gathered his feet into the bed, and expired, and was gathered to his people.

Joseph fell on his father’s face, and wept over him and kissed him. And Joseph commanded his servants the physicians to embalm his father…

They eulogized [Jacob] with a great and sore lamentation. And [Joseph] made a mourning for his father seven days…

And [Jacob’s] sons carried him to the land of Canaan, and buried him in the cave of the Machpeilah Field

Genesis 49:33-50:13

In describing Jacob’s “expiration,” the Torah pointedly avoids the use of the word vayamat, “and he died,” a word it employs with all the other deaths it relates, including Abraham’s (Genesis 25:8) and Isaac’s (35:29). Instead, it uses the euphemisms “he expired” and “he was gathered to his people.” Hence, concludes talmudic sage Rabbi Jochanan, “Our father Jacob did not die.”[1]

The Talmud records the following exchange between Rav Nachman and Rav Yitzchak:

Rav Nachman said to Rav Yitzchak: “So said Rabbi Jochanan: Our father Jacob did not die.”
Asked Rav Yitzchak: “Was it for no reason that the eulogizers eulogized, the embalmers embalmed and the buriers buried?”
Responded Rav Nachman: “I am only citing a verse. It is written, ‘And you, my servant Jacob, fear not, says the L-rd, and do not tremble, O Israel. For behold, I shall save you from afar, and your descendants from the land of their captivity.’[2] The verse equates Jacob with his descendants: just as his descendants are alive, he, too, is alive.”[3]

Spiritually or Literally

There are two ways in which this exchange can be understood. One approach, adapted by several of the talmudic commentaries,[4] is that the statement “Jacob did not die” is not meant in the literal-physical sense–after all, as Rav Yitzchak points out, Jacob was eulogized, embalmed and buried–but in the conceptual-spiritual sense: Jacob is alive because his influence lives on. This, then, is the meaning of Rav Nachman’s deduction from the verse in Jeremiah that “just as his descendants are alive, he, too, is alive”: as long as his descendants disseminate his teachings and carry on his work, Jacob lives.

However, this interpretation fails to explain the uniqueness of Jacob’s eternity: the same can be (and is) said of all righteous individuals whose children or disciples perpetuate their lives. In the words of the Zohar, “when a tzaddik (righteous person) departs, he is present in all worlds even more than he was in his lifetime.”[5] Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi explains: “The life of a tzaddik is not a fleshly life but a spiritual life, consisting wholly of faith, awe, and love of G-d… While the tzaddik was alive on earth, these three attributes were contained in their physical vessel and garment (i.e. the body) on the plane of physical space… His disciples received but a reflection of these attributes, a ray radiating beyond this vessel by means of his holy utterances and thoughts… But after his passing… whoever is close to him can receive a [far loftier dimension] of these three attributes, since they are no longer confined within a [material] vessel, nor bounded by physical space…”[6]

In other words, for a person to whom “life” means the pursuit and attainment of material gains, life indeed ceases when his soul departs from his body. But one for whom life is defined in terms of his positive influence upon others is no less alive after physical “death,” since his positive influence upon others continues for as long as his teachings are studied, his directives are followed and his deeds are emulated. Indeed, he is even more alive than before, as his soul now relates to his disciples free of the physical constraints of time and space.

But this is true of all who live “not a fleshly life but a spiritual life.” Yet it is only in the case of Jacob that the Torah refuses to say “he died.” It is only of Jacob[7] that the Talmud unequivocally states “Our father Jacob did not die.” Rabbi Jochanan and Rav Nachman seem to be implying more than the “conventional” truism that a tzaddik’s life is eternal in the non-corporeal sense.

Indeed, Rashi understands the Talmud’s meaning in the most literal sense. In his commentary on the above-quoted passage, he writes: “Our father Jacob did not die, but lives forever… the fact that the ‘embalmers embalmed’ was only because they thought he had died.” Rabbi Nachman’s proof from the verse in Jeremiah that “just as his descendants are alive, he, too, is alive” is not to be understood in the sense that Jacob lives on in the lives of his descendants, but that “just as when [G-d] gathers the people of Israel from the land of their captivity, He is gathering the living, for it is they who are in captivity–the dead are not in captivity–so, too, he (Jacob) is alive, and G-d will bring him along to the exile and redeem his children before his eyes. The fact that the ‘embalmers embalmed’ was only because to them it seemed that he was dead, but in truth he was alive.”

Reality in Two Dimensions

We thus have two perspectives on reality: the reality defined by Torah, in which Jacob does not die, and the reality of the “eulogizers, embalmers and buriers,” who perceived a lifeless Jacob. According to the first interpretation of Rav Nachman’s and Rav Yitzchak’s words, the difference lies in whether we view reality in spiritual or physical terms: if “life” is a spiritual state, Jacob’s life is unaffected by his bodily demise; if “life” is defined by physical criteria, Jacob is indeed not alive.

According to Rashi’s interpretation, both perspectives relate to the physical reality: while to the “eulogizers, embalmers and buriers” Jacob’s body was a body from which life had departed, the Torah attests that there exists a higher, truer plane of reality, a reality in which Jacob remains physically alive. For Jacob is the embodiment of the attribute of truth,[8] and truth–in the ultimate and absolute sense of the term–tolerates no equivocations. A life confined to the spiritual realm may be “true” enough for other righteous men and women of history, but in the truth of Jacob–the essence and epitome of truth–there are no partial or relative truths. To say that Jacob’s life is spiritually eternal but not physically so, to say that his physical life extended for so many years and then ceased, is to detract from its truth[9]—and everything about Jacob is wholly and utterly true.

According to this, we can better understand Rav Yitzchak’s question, “Was it for no reason that the eulogizers eulogized, the embalmers embalmed and the buriers buried?” Indeed, what does he mean by asking, Was it for no reason that these things were done? Ought not the question to have been, How could the eulogizers have eulogized etc.?

But Rav Yitzchak is not bothered by the fact that Jacob’s body seemed dead to Joseph’s Egyptian servants, or even to Jacob’ sons. The fact that they failed to perceive him as physically alive in no way detracts from the Torah’s attestation that Jacob did not die, neither spiritually nor physically. Torah is the foundation and essence of creation,[10] and the supreme arbiter of reality; if mortal eyes and minds fail to corroborate what Torah establishes as fact, this in no way diminishes the truth of Torah’s description of reality. Rather, Rav Yitzchak’s challenge to Rav Nachman is from the fact that the Torah itself reports the “expiration,” mourning and burial of Jacob. Was the “death” of Jacob an event of no significance? Were the burial arrangements unnecessary? Was he mourned for no reason? But the Torah describes these events as having occurred, and in a manner that implies that Joseph and his brothers acted as they ought to have acted when they perceived Jacob’s soul as having departed his body.

Rav Nachman’s response is that, all this notwithstanding, the Torah clearly regards Jacob as alive, and alive in the same sense that his descendants are alive—as souls residing in physical bodies. So while Jacob’s children’s response to his “death” was the correct response according to Torah–Torah law mandated that Jacob be mourned and buried[11]–this is only because Torah relates to and instructs reality on all levels, including the level on which Jacob’s physical life is perceived to have ceased. At the same time, Torah attests to the existence of the higher reality in which the truth and eternity of Jacob is never compromised, neither in the spiritual level nor on the physical level.

Possibling the Impossible

What are we to make of all this? What implications are there here for those of us who inhabit a reality defined by our five senses and the laws of nature—a reality in which physical life inevitably yields to the eulogizer and the grave-digger?

The Talmud relates that when Moses ascended to heaven to receive the Torah, the angels objected. The Torah had best be left where it is, they argued, here in the spiritual realm. Moses responded:

“What is written in the Torah? ‘I am the L-rd Your G-d who has taken you out from the land of Egypt.’ Have you been descended to Egypt? Have you been enslaved to Pharaoh? What else does it say? ‘You shall have no alien gods.’ Do you dwell amongst idol-worshiping nations? ‘Remember the day of Shabbat.’ Do you work? ‘Do not swear falsely.’ Do you do business? ‘Honor your father and your mother.’ Do you have parents? ‘Do not kill,’ ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not steal’—Is there jealousy between you? Do you have an evil inclination?”[12]

The Torah, we are repeatedly told, is not in heaven, nor was it given to angels; it is a document communicated to mortal man to guide and sanctify physical life.[13] Virtually all the Torah’s commandments are physical activities: giving a coin to charity, binding tefillin on one’s arm and head, eating matzo on Passover. Even the more “spiritual” mitzvot–Torah study, prayer, love and awe of G-d–are deeds performed by the physical brain, heart and lips. Intrinsic to the nature of the mitzvah is that it is to be performed by natural means, and in the most natural manner possible.[14]

But there are two ways of viewing the Torah’s delegation to the natural realm:

(a) Since G-d intended that the Torah serve as a guide to physical life, He designed it to conform to its rules and norms. Thus, Torah is subject to the laws of nature and cannot, or may not, supersede them.[15]

(b) Torah, as the divine wisdom and will, precedes and transcends creation itself[16] and is not subservient to natural law. Nature is merely its modus operandi: Torah confines itself to the natural realm because its function is to develop the physical reality, not to escape it or overturn it.

The distinction between (a) and (b) may seem a semantic mind game—the bottom line, after all, is that Torah operates within the confines of nature. But when applied to the business of daily living, it translates into all the difference in the world. What happens when Torah demands the impossible? When it expects a tiny nation to live for four thousand years as a “lamb in the midst of seventy wolves”[17] and not only survive but defang and civilize the seventy wolves? When it tells us to rise above the pain and mortality of the physical state and imbue it with light, joy and eternity? —And to achieve this all with our humanly finite faculties and resources?

One who sees nature’s laws as the basis upon which the divine blueprint for life is predicated, can only reiterate that the impossible is impossible. If the constraints of our empirical reality do not allow it, he maintains, then Torah, which is bound by these constraints, certainly does not expect it of us. Perhaps these are hypothetical goals to strive towards as we do the best we can with the tools at our disposal. But this is the world we live in, and its laws are what define and govern our mission in life.

But one who knows that “our father Jacob did not die,” that the Torah truth that Jacob embodies is not subject to the mortalities of the physical condition, knows that no law or norm can restrict the full and unequivocal implementation of the Torah’s vision of reality. True, the same Torah recounts, lends credence to and instructs the behavior of those who perceived Jacob to have died, for Torah operates within the physical reality, within, even, finite man’s perception of the physical reality; but at the same time, Torah is utterly free of its limits and conventions.

Torah is neither subject to the natural reality nor divorced from it, confined to the supernatural realm of the spirit. It embraces both realities, transcending nature even as it pervades and defines it, making real the impossible even as it employs only the most naturally possible means to do so.

Torah is neither subject to the natural reality nor divorced from it, confined to the supernatural realm of the spirit. It embraces both realities, transcending nature even as it pervades and defines it, making real the impossible even as it employs only the most naturally possible means to do so.

Based on an address by the Rebbe, Av 20, 5731 (August 11, 1971)[18].

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe by Yanki Tauber.


[1] Talmud, Taanit 5b; Tosfot commentary, ibid.

[2] Jeremiah 30:10

[3] Talmud, ibid.

[4] See Maharsha on Talmud, ibid.; Rashba on Ein Yaakov, ibid.

[5] Zohar, part III, 71b. See also Talmud, Brachot 18a and Chulin 7b.

[6] Tanya, Igeret Hakodesh 27.

[7] And Moses—see following note.

[8] Jacob embodies the attribute of tifferet, the third of the seven supernal midot or divine attributes. Tifferet is the divine projection of truth, consistency and harmony into creation; it is thus the attribute of Torah, which is the hallmark of Jacob (as per Genesis 25:27 and Psalms 78:5). For a more detailed discussion of Jacob’s personification of Torah and truth, see Redigging the Wells of Love, WIR vol. VI no. 10.
Another figure who is intimately identified with the truth of Torah is Moses, of who it is said, “Moses is true and his Torah is true” (Midrash Tanchuma, Korach 11. Indeed, the Zohar sees Jacob and Moses as the inner and outer dimensions of the same soul (Tikkunei Zohar #13, 29a). Thus, the Talmud cites a view that “Moses did not die” (Sotah 13b) and Rabbi Ishmael derives from Deuteronomy 34:6 that “He (Moses) buried himself” (Sifri, Numbers 6:13).

[9] There is a halachic principle that exemplifies this point. According to Torah law, the water used in the preparation of the Parah Adumah (the “Red Heifer,” whose ashes counteract the ritual impurity engendered through contact with death) must be “living waters” (Numbers 19:17)—i.e. water from an active spring. “False water,” rules the Talmud, “is not qualified for use. What is ‘false water’? Water from a spring that runs dry once in seven years” (Talmud, Parah 8:9). For six years out of every seven, the water of such a spring is arguably as real as the water from a spring that never runs dry; nevertheless, it is considered “false water” and is unfit for use—the fact that there are times when this spring fails diminishes the truth of its waters even when they flow freely. Truth, then, is more than the fact of a certain reality existing within the context of a certain framework; for something to be truly true, it must persevere under all conditions and in all contexts.

[10] See Midrash Rabbah, Bereishit 1:2

[11] In the words of the Talmud, “A judge can only go by what his eyes see” (Bava Batra 131a). When Jacob’s sons perceived their father to have passed on from physical life, they were obligated by Torah law to bury and mourn him, regardless of what transpired (or didn’t transpire) on a level of reality beyond their experiential reach.

[12] Talmud, Shabbat 89a.

[13] See Talmud, Bava Metzia 59b and Brachot 25b and numerous others

[14] See also Likkutei Sichot vol. V pg. 80.

[15] See D’rashot HaRan pg. 8: “G-d desires to uphold the workings of the world as much as possible; nature is dear to Him, and He does not interfere with it unless it is critically necessary.” By the same token, one might argue that G-d has imbued the laws of nature with a legitimacy and authority that exceed those of Torah.

[16] In the words of the Midrash, “The Torah preceded the creation of the world by two thousand years” (Midrash Tehillim 90:13). See Water, Water, Water, WIR vol. VI no. 6.

[17] Midrash Tanchuma, Toldot 5.

[18] Likkutei Sichot, Vayechi 5751. See also Likkutei Sichot, vol. XXVI pp. 1-9

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