A week after the holiday of Chanukah and its eight glorious nights of ever-increasing light, it's fair to say that when we approach this week's Torah portion, we're still on a spiritual high. And with the darkness of winter fast approaching, this portion's title, Vayechi — which literally means "and he lived" — signals the promise of life and fulfillment.
How curious, then, that at the literal level, this portion isn't about life at all. It records the passing of Jacob and foretells the beginning of the Jewish people's Egyptian bondage.
As he nears the end of his days, Jacob summons Joseph with a final request: He should bury his body in the land of his forefathers. He then calls for Joseph's sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, in order to bless them. Finally, he reaches out to all of Joseph's brothers, giving them each a unique blessing.
His work on earth done, he "drew his feet into the bed and, breathing his last, he was gathered to his people."
At this point, there's no question what happened to Jacob. But the Talmud actually records a debate between two third- century Babylonian sages as to whether Jacob died or not.
Rabbi Yitzchak held that since the Torah never really says that Jacob died, he must have lived. Rabbi Nachman, on the other hand, quite convincingly argued that he had to have passed on. The Torah describes his funeral procession, he noted, so it can afford to be poetic in describing Jacob's demise without actually spelling it out.
The medieval commentator Rashi, however, endorses Rabbi Yitzchak's view and emphatically declares that "our Father Jacob did not die."
Which opinion is correct? In a way, they both are.
The Baal HaTurim commentary takes the first verse of the portion and turns it on its head. When the Torah says that Jacob "lived 17 years in the land of Egypt," the Baal HaTurim asserts that he lived the best years of his life there.
That's quite a statement to make about a man whose father, Isaac, refused to leave the borders of the future Holy Land because of its sanctity, and whose progeny would wander in the desert waiting for the opportunity to re-enter it.
One explanation is that Jacob, who spent years mourning what he thought was the death of Joseph, was overjoyed at having his family back together again. Another emphasizes that prior to descending to Egypt, Jacob dispatched his son Judah to establish a network of schools there so that he and his descendants would continually be involved in study.
The take away, though, is that a Jew needn't be bound by place. Similarly, as the dispute between the ultimate fate of Jacob illustrates, a Jew needn't be bound by time.
Ultimately, the Talmud concludes that Jacob lived because his descendants lived. While this week's Torah portion ends by saying that Joseph was "placed in a coffin in Egypt," thereby heralding the bondage of the Jewish people, tradition maintains that through all the years of slavery, Jacob's descendants held on to their Jewish names.
You only need to look around you to see the magnificent miracle that continually renews itself. Two millennia after the destruction of the Holy Temple, Judaism remains steadfast.
Rabbi Joshua Runyan, former news editor of the Jewish Exponent, is the editor of Chabad.org News. E-mail him at: [email protected]