The Seeds of Today’s World have been Sown; The Stage Set
Jacob called for his sons and he said to them: Come together and I will tell what will happen at the end of days
– This week’s Torah portion – Genesis 49:1
Don’t be afraid, said Joseph to them [his brothers], shall I then take G-d’s place? You might have meant to do me harm, but G-d made it come out good. [As a result of my ending up in Egypt] I am enabled today to preserve the life of a great nation. Don’t worry, I will fully provide for you and your children. He thus comforted them as he spoke to their hearts
Joseph remained in Egypt… Joseph said to his family: I am dying. G-d is sure to fulfill his promise and bring you out of this land, to the land that he promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Joseph then bound the Israelites by an oath: When G-d fulfills this promise, you must bring [elevate] my remains [bones] out of this place. Joseph died at the age of 110 years. He was embalmed and placed in a casket in Egypt
– Conclusion of the book one, Genesis 50:22-26
Jacob never died…just as his children are alive so too is he alive
– Talmud Taanit 5b
As the solar year comes to a close with terrorism on the rise and an uncertain future looming ahead of us, we read the concluding chapter of the first book of the Torah. Endings require summations – sort of an accounting of where we stand and where we are headed.
Almost twenty years have passed since the dawn of the 21st Century. Just as we entered the new century, our comfort zones were rattled by the attacks of September 11, 2001, serving as an unwelcome precursor of events to come; a rude awakening to the world in which we now live.
To understand and make some sense of these turbulent times – both the physical times and the spiritual ones – we must look behind the scenes, into the historical forces which have led to and shaped our current universe. We need to travel beyond these world shaking events and study the spiritual events of these times, as related in the weekly Torah portions that we have been reading these last months.
During these last fifteen weeks we have traveled through Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Sukkot, we have read the first eleven portions of the book of Genesis (Bereishis), and are now reading the twelfth and final chapter: Vayechi, which begins “and Jacob Lived.”
Jacob, his twelve sons and Joseph are now all living in Egypt. Pharaoh has provided them with the best of the land. Indeed, Jacob’s last seventeen years in Egypt are his best years. The theme of this week’s Torah chapter is about Jacob’s last days and his burial. Jacob gives his final instructions to his children, he blesses each of the tribes, and finally asks that they bury him not in Egypt, but in Israel, together with his parents (Isaac and Rebecca) and grandparents (Abraham and Sarah) in the Cave of Machpela burial plot in Chebron.
Our weekly portion seems to be overly preoccupied with death and burial. Besides the detailed narrative of Jacob’s burial, we also learn about Rachel’s burial as Jacob explains to Joseph the reason he buried Rachel on the roadside. And finally we read at the end of the chapter how also Joseph is consumed with the plans for his burial.
Another unusual twist to this is that the word ‘death’ is never mentioned in regard to Jacob. The Talmud points this out and explains that “Jacob our father never died.” The Talmud continues and asks: “But didn’t they eulogize and bury him?!” And answers: “Just as his children are alive, so too is he alive.”
What is the story and what is its relevance today?
As we conclude the first book of Torah, a chapter – the first chapter – in history comes to a close. The book of Bereishis – aka Genesis – is exactly that: A book that lays out the genesis and the framework for all of existence. It is a blueprint for life that sets the stage for all the events to come. The chapters in the Book of Genesis – from Bereishis to Vayechi – tell a sequential story that spans a period of 24 generations:
Chapter one – the story of creation and of Adam and Eve.
Chapter two – the story of Noah and the flood 10 generations later.
Chapters three, four and five – the story of Abraham, ten generations after Noah.
Chapter six – the story of Isaac.
Chapters seven through nine – the story of Jacob
Chapters ten through the end and twelfth chapter – the story of Joseph and his brothers.
As we discussed in our previous articles, Abraham, Sarah, Ishmael, Isaac, Esau, Jacob, Joseph – are all the pivotal characters that will shape history to come.
Eating from the Tree of Knowledge creates the first distortion: The universe and its higher purpose separate. The dichotomy between spirit and matter begins. The Tree of Knowledge experience creates the split between fruit and peel, light and vessel, energy and container, spirit and matter – between the inner soul and the outer shell. Life is aligned as long as the shell is aware of its role as protector of the fruit within. But when the shell perceives itself as an end in itself – that I am it – then all problems begin.
A confusion of roles begins to emerge. This first identity crisis is the root of all role confusions throughout history: Who am I?
This alienation process deteriorates from generation to generation. Abraham is the first to reverse the dissonance and disorientation; he reintroduces G-d into life. Yet he is faced with a daunting challenge, to refine a world that is unreceptive and even antagonistic to anything divine.
Once the balance has been upset, it takes an extraordinary amount of effort and clarity to reclaim balance. After the balance has been lost it takes more effort to recreate harmony within chaos than it does to create harmony in the first place. Once the shell (kelipah) has taken control, it does not easily relinquish it. Once the cat has been let out of the bag and the universe feels that it is independent, it no longer wants to dance with G-d.
Abraham passes on his faith to his children. But living in an unbalanced world, this faith is difficult to integrate into regular daily life. Each progressive generation of Abraham’s children continues the work of integrating spirit and matter, and each respective generation is faced with its unique challenges in achieving these goals.
Here’s a brief map of the Book of Genesis – the building blocks of existence.
Abraham is chesed – the right flank.
Ishmael is chesed to its extreme, unharnessed energy.
Isaac – gevurah – the left flank.
Esau – gevurah to its extreme, unseasoned aggression.
Jacob – tiferet – the spine in the middle, balancing the previous two.
These elements define the world of vision – the vision of how life is to be lived and how we fulfill the purpose of existence.
Joseph and his brothers actualize the vision in the material world. They enter into Egypt and begin the process of refining the land. Joseph, as leader of Egypt, turns the country into a wealthy superpower.
Now the nation is ready for its first great challenge: Overcoming slavery to barbaric Egypt and thereby elevating and refining the sparks within. Egypt (Mitzrayim) is the archetype of the ‘shell’ existence, where the material dominates and enslaves the spiritual.
As difficult as the task may be, the people are well armed. They come with an arsenal consisting of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; they are equipped with the seasoning of the forefathers, who pass on their battle experiences to their children. They have seen the traps of faith, the extremes of Ishmael and Esau; and now they are ready to face materialistic Egypt.
What gives humans the power to overcome formidable challenges that defy mortal strength? The answer is one word: Hope. Faith in the process, trust in G-d and His promises, gives us superhuman hope and confidence that we will prevail. Our connection to the past is our guarantee for the future.
Hence, the strong emphasis on the burial of Jacob, Rachel and Joseph. Honoring and remembering the lives of our patriarchs and matriarchs and the promises told to them, give their children the power to endure all. Furthermore, our connection to the pioneers that came before us and paved the way bring them alive. They live on through their children.
Thus the word ‘death’ is never associated with Jacob. “As his children live so too he is alive.” When children perpetuate the spirit of their parents they show how their parent, whose inspiration lives in them, is truly alive. Hence the name of this week’s portion: Vayechi Yaakov – Jacob lives. Though the chapter discusses his death and preparations beforehand, the entire chapter is named and epitomizes that Jacob lives.
Yet, Jacob is still part of a higher world. He was a shepherd like his father and grandfather, insulated from the harsh business world out there. Joseph is the one that bridges the two worlds of sanctity and secularism, of spirituality and the material world. Thus, Joseph insists on being buried not in Israel, but in Egypt.
Joseph wants to serve as a reminder to the people during their long hard labor years in Egypt, that they should always remember via his remains, the promise that they will leave this place, and their oath that they would leave together with Joseph’s bones.
Like his mother Rachel, who is buried at the roadside to console the Jewish people as they leave Israel in exile (“Rachel cries for her children”), Joseph too ensures that he remain with the people.
The lesson of hope is relevant today more than ever. As civilizations wage war it would be wise to remember that these battles began many years ago. They were foretold together with the promise that we will prevail. The Egyptian exile is the archetype of all the battles to come. Jacob and Joseph always remind us that we can overcome any challenge and they give us the power of eternity – through them we never die and through us they never die. When we connect and hold onto our faith in G-d and His promises, then we will win any war and always prevail.
A chapter ends. A new and very difficult chapter is about to begin. But the seed of redemption has been planted. In the throes of the Egyptian exile and persecution Joseph remains as a defiant declaration that we will leave this place. Abraham’s vision and G-d’s promise will be fulfilled. We will prevail and we will leave with great wealth. Richer and greater than we were before we arrived.
And we will leave with the power to bring freedom to the entire world.
The book of Genesis concludes with Vayechi Yaakov and Joseph’s casket being placed in Egypt. Never have deaths been more alive.
Vayechi Yaakov – Jacob lives. The promise lives. The vision lives. Joseph reminds us throughout the harshest periods that it all continues to live.
Hold on to the vision. Hold on to the generations past that have been there. Hold on and see it through – we will be free. That is a promise.