We have been learning about the mysterious ‘death’ of Yaakov Avinu. Here’s what we’ve seen so far:
Servitude began in Egypt with the passing of Yaakov; ‘the eyes and hearts of Bne Israel were closed’ with the loss of their leader and his spiritual power.
Yaakov excelled particularly in Torah study, and so left the greatest void in this area when he passed away.
The Torah hints that the way for our nation to survive bitter exile is to cling to Yaakov’s trait of Torah study: “If ‘Yaakov’ lives, then even in the land of suffering…’
Rav Nachman asked Rav Yitzchak to share words of Torah, but Rav Yitzchak declined because it is dangerous to speak while eating:
‘There should be no talk at meals, lest food enter the windpipe instead of the esophagus, leading to danger.’
At the end of the meal, Rav Yitzchak commented: ‘Yaakov Avinu did not die.’
When Rav Nachman protested, as the Torah records Yaakov’s embalming, eulogies and burial, Rav Yitzchak explained that he derived this concept from a verse that associates Yaakov with his descendants, ‘to teach us that just as his offspring are alive, so is he alive.’
Rashi and Tosafot understand that Yaakov literally did not die; the people mistakenly thought he was dead, and the verse only says that Yaakov ‘expired’, not ‘died’.
The Rif argues that Yaakov did physically pass away; he just ‘didn’t die’ in a spiritual sense, as his children were all righteous and so perpetuated his life of purity.
The Rif may then read Yaakov’s ‘expiration’ as a physical death, and understand the lack of mention of actual ‘death’ as Yaakov’s unique spiritual legacy.
The Kabbalists reveal Torah secrets from within the Talmudic passage we’ve been studying. The first observation on this Gemara is of the details it records. Not only are we told that the two great Rabbis were dining together, but also that Rav Yitzchak warned of the danger of talking while eating. To be sure, something can be learned from all of this…
Let’s take a look at the exact wording of Rav Yitzchak’s initial warning:
“So says Rabbi Yochanan: ‘There should be no talk at meals, lest food enter the windpipe instead of the esophagus, leading to danger.’”
The Hebrew word for esophagus that the Gemara uses is: veshet.
Rav Yeshayah Halevi Horowitz (“the Shelah Hakadosh”) and others note an instance in the Torah in which this same word is used. To be exact, it is actually a case of the same letters forming a different word, and the word is actually to be found in the ancient Aramaic translation, Targum Onkelos. The following is the verse and its Onkelos translation. It is from the episode in which Eisav sold his firstborn status to Yaakov for a pot of lentil stew:
(Eisav:) ‘Pour for me from that red, red stuff…’
(Yaakov:) ‘Sell me now like today the firstborn rights…’
And Yaacov gave Eisav bread and pottage of lentils; and he did eat and drink, and rose up, and went his way. And Eisav disgraced the birthright.
The Aramaic word for ‘disgraced’ is… veshat!
Eisav- or specifically, his desecration of the firstborn status- is somehow associated with the esophagus. The trachea (‘windpipe’), then, symbolizes Yaakov. Years later, Yitzchak was unsure at first about who was approaching him for his blessing:
‘The voice is the voice of Yaakov, but the hands are the hands of Eisav!’
The Talmud (Gemara Megillah) teaches that these descriptors highlight the difference between B’nei Israel and Edom, Eisav’s nation. Whereas Eisav uses his ‘hands’ in murdering, Yaakov uses his ‘voice’ in prayer and Torah study. Rav Menachem Mendel of Riminov taught that B’nei Israel’s strength is thus represented by the windpipe, the medium of speech. Edom is drawn to the material distractions of this world; Eisav exchanged spiritual eternity for a meal, and places primary importance on the esophagus as the agent for food consumption.
Ironically, Eisav- so involved with this physical world and sustaining himself and his desires at any cost- is the one who lives with the specter of death hanging over him.
His very reasoning for agreeing to give up the privilege of the firstborn rights is…because he will one day die!:
‘Behold, I am going to die, so why do I need this firstborn status?’
And it was from within this perspective that the Torah later pronounces his error:
…and Eisav disgraced the firstborn status.’
Yaakov, who lives for the World to Come, does not fear death. Eisav, fully enmeshed with his physical existence, must cope with the ever-nearing fate that meets every human being- well, almost every human being:
‘Yaakov Avinu did not die.’
-Gemara Ta’anit 5b
-Amazing- and we now read Rav Yitzchak’s statement from a completely new perspective:
In this world of physical existence, we must fulfill our basic survival needs, but also take care not to get wrapped up in the material allures that surround us. In other words, we need to remember not to feel too ‘comfortable’ with materialism, and note that we are just ‘passing through’. One who talks during a meal, on a deeper level, shows that he ‘takes his time’ in what is supposed to be a mere act of survival.
(To be precise, we may indeed enjoy the material benefits that this world has to offer, yet we learn from these great people that we may not emphasize luxury and comfort, but rather must be focused on spiritual accomplishment.)
So.. be careful, because we don’t want the ‘windpipe’ to precede the ‘esophagus’; don’t get wrapped up in physicality, because we don’t want that to kill the spiritual dimension that we really live for !
This of course explains the connection between Rav Yitzchak’s two quotes from Rabbi Yochanan– the safety warning and that Yaakov did not die. Rav Yitzchak was first alluding to the danger of spiritual death, and then taught Yaakov never actually died.
If we learn from Yaakov’s life, we will ourselves be worthy children, and so perpetuate his life.
Spiritually at least, Yaakov did not die. And we too, B’nei Israel, strive for the same:
And also, the eternity of Yisrael will never cease…
-Shemuel I; 15:29
Have a great Shabbat!
Elli Schwarcz is an alumnus of the Toras Moshe, Ner Israel, and Carteret Yeshivos, and has been involved in Jewish outreach for almost 15 years. He is a Hebrew School and English Language Arts teacher, and has a Master’s Degree in Counseling from Johns Hopkins University. Of all his pursuits, Elli most enjoys teaching high-level Jewish thought and Talmud to teenage boys, exposing them to the beauty and wisdom of their heritage while highlighting their own ability to engage in advanced Torah learning. Elli lives in Lakewood, New Jersey, with his wife and children.