Parshat Vayechi describes a powerful deathbed scene in which Jacob summons his sons and grandsons and blesses them before he dies. After he breathes his last breath, he is embalmed and mourned and then taken by Joseph and by a host of Egyptian dignitaries to be buried in Canaan. There seems no question about the fact that Jacob dies in this week’s parsha – and yet at least one Talmudic rabbi is not so sure.
The Talmud in tractate Taanit (5b) recounts an intriguing exchange about Jacob’s death that unfolds between two third-century rabbis who were once sharing a meal together. The first, Rav Nahman the Babylonian, is hosting Rabbi Yitzhak, a visitor from the land of Israel. Just when they are sitting down to eat, Rav Nahman demands of his guest, “Master, say something!” Rabbi Yitzchak does not miss the opportunity to quote a teaching from his own teacher, Rabbi Yohanan, who was the leading sage in the land of Israel. Rabbi Yohanan was regarded as a formidable figure by the Babylonian sages of his time, who wished to prove that their own Torah scholarship surpassed—or at least rivalled—the Torah that was coming out of the land of Israel. And so Rabbi Yitzchak showcases the brilliance of his teacher while at the same time one-upping his Babylonian interlocutor, Rav Nahman. He responds: “Thus said Rabbi Yohanan: One may not speak during a meal, lest the esophagus precede the trachea and one’s life thereby become endangered.” Rabbi Yitzchak thus accedes to his host’s request while at the same time dismissing it as inappropriate and unenlightened; if only Rav Nahman had studied with Rabbi Yohanan, he seems to be implying, he would know that it is dangerous to talk while eating.
Presumably Rav Nahman is chastened by Rabbi Yitzchak’s dismissal. The Talmud does not report on any further dialogue between them until they are finished eating, at which point Rabbi Yitzchak volunteers another teaching from the great Rabbi Yohanan. He tells his host, “Thus said Rabbi Yohanan: Jacob our patriarch did not die.” This is a rather surprising statement, and certainly Rav Nahman is taken aback. He asks, “And was it for naught that the eulogizers eulogized him and the embalmers embalmed him and the buriers buried him?” As Rav Nahman argues, our parsha states explicitly that Jacob was embalmed for forty days, mourned for seventy days, and then taken for burial in the land of Israel in an elaborate funeral procession – how then could he not have died?
But Rabbi Yitzchak is adamant: Jacob did not die, at least not in the sense that he means. He tells Rav Nahman that he is offering a midrash on a verse from Jeremiah (30:10): “Therefore do not fear, Jacob, my servant, says the Lord, neither be dismayed, Israel, for I will save you from afar, and your seed from the land of their captivity.” As Rabbi Yitzchak explains to Rav Nahman, this verse juxtaposes Jacob with his seed to highlight their commonality: Just as Jacob’s descendants are brought back from the seeming death of exile in the book of Jeremiah, so the progenitor Jacob never truly dies.
Although Rabbi Yitzchak does not say so explicitly, he is in fact offering a highly literal reading of the biblical text. A close comparison of the deaths of the three patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, reveals that at least in one sense, Jacob did not die. Abraham is said to have “breathed his last, and died . . . and was gathered to his kin” (Gen 25:8); Isaac is described similarly to have “breathed his last, and died, and was gathered to his kin” (Gen 35:29). By contrast, Jacob’s death, as described in this week’s parsha, includes only two of these phrases: “He breathed his last, and was gathered to his kin” (Gen 49:33)—but the Torah never says vayamot – that he died. According to Rabbi Yitzchak’s reading, Jacob may have died on a spiritual level—his breath expired, his spirit was gathered to his kin—but he never physically died.
Paradoxically, though, Rabbi Yitzchak is also making the opposite point – Jacob remains alive not on a physical level (he was after all embalmed and buried), but on a spiritual level – his spirit remains alive as long as his children endure. So long as the children of Israel are alive, Jacob—whose name was changed to Israel—is sustained. Rav Nahman, the literalist, might beg to differ, but Rabbi Yitzchak is offering a midrash, as he himself admits. Indeed, perhaps it is a good thing that Rabbi Yitzchak did not share this teaching while they were still eating, because Rav Nahman might have choked on his food in his shock. And then one of Jacob’s descendants would have died, in keeping with Rabbi Yohanan’s warning.
Rabbi Yitzchak’s midrash suggests that there are people who make such an impact on the world that they never truly die – their legacy endures long after they have physically departed from the earth. John Donne captures this notion beautifully in the opening stanzas of “A Valediction—Forbidding Mourning”:
As virtuous men pass mildly away,
And whisper to their souls to go,
Whilst some of their sad friends do say
The breath goes now, and some say, No.
It is almost impossible to tell when a righteous person has died, because their spirit expires so gently as to be almost undetectable. Some of their sad friends say their breath has gone, but others insist that no, they are still alive. And the others are not entirely wrong, as we have seen. Jacob is still alive so long as we, the Jewish people, continue to live in accordance with the divine covenant and perpetuate his legacy.