When Jacob had finished giving instructions to his sons, he drew his feet up into the bed, breathed his last and was gathered to his people. — Genesis 49:33
This Torah portion for this week is Vayechi, which means “and he lived,” from Genesis 47:28–50:26, and the Haftorah is from 1 Kings 2:1–12.
This week’s reading begins with the death of Jacob and ends with the death of Joseph. So it’s quite puzzling as to why this selection is titled “Vayechi,” which means “and he lived.” Why give such a name to a section dealing primarily with death?
Even more mysterious is this cryptic quote from the Talmud, Judaism’s Oral Tradition that was collected and written down: “Our father Jacob never died.” Surely this phrase can’t be literal as it clearly says in the Bible that Jacob died: “he drew his feet up into the bed, breathed his last and was gathered to his people.” So which is it; did he or didn’t he pass on?
The Jewish sages explain that the deceased righteous are still called “living,” whereas the living wicked are already called “deceased.” Just because someone is physically alive doesn’t mean that they are really living. Having a pulse does not equal life. Which leads us to the question: What is life really about? Life is growing and changing. It is giving and sharing. It is learning and teaching. When a person wastes away his or her days doing nothing with meaning or content, that person is merely existing.
This is why the righteous live on even after they have left us. Their lives continue to serve as examples that guide and teach us. Their good deeds continue to bear fruit long after they have passed away. They leave us a legacy that far outlives their own lives. In this way they continue to change the world and contribute to society. They live on in the people who continue to build upon what they began.
Interestingly, in Genesis 25:7, Jacob is called “tam.” This Hebrew word has been translated in many ways as meaning “quiet,” “content,” or “simple.” Judaism understands the word to mean “whole” or “complete,” as in “completely righteous.” When you take the word tam and reverse it, you get the Hebrew word “met,”’ which means “dead.” Jacob is described as the opposite of dead, the antithesis of death. He was righteous and complete, a beacon of light and full of life. His light shines forever, and in this way, he never died.
While we tend to measure life in terms of quantity, we ought to make the true measure according to quality. Some short lives reverberate for generations while other people’s long lives are as if they never lived. As we go through the days and years that God has given us, let’s make them count forever. Let us leave behind a meaningful legacy to generations to come and sow seeds that will bear beautiful fruit long after we ourselves are gone.
With prayers for shalom, peace,
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
Founder and President