There is a unique characteristic to this week’s Torah reading- specifically, to its beginning. If you have ever looked into a Sefer Torah, you may have noticed that in addition to its many words, the Torah also contains blank spaces. These spaces, of which a Torah portion will typically have six to eight, signify ‘breaks in the action’ within the Torah. There are two types of spacing. One is known as a ‘Sidra’; it is marked in printed chumashim with the letter “samech”, and this blank stretch is the equivalent of three written letters. The other type of break is called a ‘Parasha’, and is nine ‘letters’ long. It is symbolized by the letter “peh” in chumashim.
The most logical place for such a break is between the end of one Torah portion and the beginning of the next, as it delineates the two individual portions. However, there is one instance in the Torah in which no such space- in fact, no space at all- separates two portions. The place between last week’s reading, Vayigash, and this week’s reading, Vayechi, is completely closed! Why does the Torah not leave an ‘opening’ between these two portions?
Rashi quotes one of our Rabbis’ answers:
Why is this section [completely] closed? Because, as soon as our father Jacob passed away, the eyes and the heart of Israel were “closed,” (i.e., it became “dark” for them) because of the misery of the slavery, for they (the Egyptians) commenced to subjugate them.
-Rashi, from Midrash
-Why would the slavery begin specifically after Yaakov died? One reason could be practical: the Egyptians may have already despised the nation growing in their midst, but still respected Yaakov enough to not take action during his lifetime.
Alternatively, his merit may have protected his children and grandchildren, and so as soon as he died, the fate of slavery that had awaited them during this time was activated.
At any rate, commentators are bothered by the very answer for why the portion is ‘closed’: the slavery actually didn’t start until the last of Yaakov’s sons (Levi) died, years later! What does it mean, that the slavery began with Yaakov’s passing?
The Nesivos Shalom offers several explanations for this teaching, all predicated on the same point: the loss of Yaakov meant the loss of the special qualities he had. Yaakov’s death meant that his unique character traits- more deeply, the strengths of his soul that impacted worlds- were lost.
One dimension that the Nesivos Shalom focuses on is Yaakov’s Torah study. As we have discussed in the past, Avraham represented the trait of kindness, Yitzchak that of service of God- and Yaakov, that of Torah study. Torah study is the only quality, the only spiritual domain, that gives us sufficient strength to bear exile and its difficulties. This, teaches the Nesivos Shalom, gives new insight into the famous rabbinic dictum:
One whose head hurts should study Torah.
-Gemara Eiruvin 54a
Also, the Ba’al Shem Tov teaches a novel reading of a famous- and stunning- rabbinic teaching in this light:
Yaakov Avinu did not die.
-Gemara Ta’anit 5b
Says the great Ba’al Shem Tov: we can interpret this as follows: with the trait of Yaakov Avinu- that of Torah study- we can never die. No matter the circumstances, no matter the suffering that a person- or our nation- experiences, the study of Torah is an anchor, offering perspective, calm and spiritual strength to endure it all.
Let’s take a closer look at the above quote from the Gemara. Is this really to be taken literally, that Yaakov did not die? Is he still alive now? What happened? And if this comment was not literal, what is it actually supposed to mean?
Before learning the commentators’ explanations, let’s examine the entire passage there:
Rav Nachman and Rav Yitzchok, sat together at a feast. Rav Nachman said to Rav Yitzchok, “Master, say a few words, if you would.”
Rav Yitzchok responded: “So says Rebbi Yochanan: ‘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 Yitzchok continued: “So says Rebbi Yochanan: ‘Yaakov Avinu did not die.’”
Rav Nachman answered, “Was it for nothing that the eulogizers eulogized and the embalmers embalmed and the gravediggers buried?!” [as the Torah describes].
Rav Yitzchok answered: “I derive this from the Torah (Yirmiyaha 30), as it is said: ‘And you, my servant Yaakov, do not fear,’ says Hashem, ‘and do not be dismayed, Yisrael, for you I will save from afar, and your offspring [I will save] from the land of their captivity.’ This verse associates Yaakov with his descendants to teach us that just as his offspring are alive, so is he alive.”
-Isn’t this passage interesting? Upon hearing Rav Yitzchak’s teaching, Rav Nachman responded with a seemingly unbeatable argument: Yaakov must have died- after all, they embalmed, buried and eulogized him! Not only does this point seem to refute Rav Yitzchak’s radical idea, but it makes the Gemara’s next line even stranger! Rav Yitzchak hears Rav Nachman’s rebuttal- but then provides a proof from a Torah hint that Yaakov hadn’t actually died. It seems that the only source for this concept all along was the hint that Rav Yitzchak now brandished here- and yet he maintains his position even though the verses of the Chumash itself openly contradict him! What’s going on here?
Rashi, on this Gemara, reads Rav Yitzchak’s teaching in the simplest way: the people who embalmed treated Yaakov as they would a dead person were mistaken in doing so: ‘they thought he had died’. Rav Yitzchak’s idea is technically not contradicted by the verses of the Torah according to this, because Yaakov was embalmed, buried and eulogized- only unjustifiably, because he was actually alive. We should note that did not ask any question from the verse telling us that Yaakov died–
And when Yaacov finished commanding his sons, he gathered up his feet into the bed, and expired, and was gathered unto his people.
-only from people’s reaction to his ‘death’. Why is no mention made of the above verse? Tosafot answers this question as follows: the verse does not actually say that Yaakov died- just that he ‘expired’. This respectful expression, also used in describing his father Yitzchak’s death, is different in that it is not mentioned in conjunction with the term ‘death’.
Apparently, Rav Yitzchak did not base his argument on how Yaakov ‘expired’ because this does not necessarily show that he actually ‘died’. Instead, he needed to resort to the embalmment, burial and eulogies performed as proof that Yaakov must have died. However, the fact that literal death is not mentioned for Yaakov- even though it was used for Avraham and Yitzchak- seems to support the notion that something different must have happened here.
In other words: yes, Yaakov “expired,” but no, he did not ‘die’.
Now… what does that mean?
We rarely see Rishonim- the great commentators of the Middle Ages- comment on the more esoteric Talmudic teachings; most of their writings deal with the Talmud’s discussion of halacha, Torah law, as well as its stories and moral lessons. It is therefore a special opportunity to study the explanations of the Rif and the Rashba on the Gemara Ta’anit that we are examining.
The Rif teaches as follows:
Yaakov Avinu was the first of the forefathers- and really the first in world history- to bear children who were all completely righteous. Avraham, though, had Yishmael in addition to Yitzchak, and Yitzchak had Esav in addition to Yaakov. Given the principles that ‘the righteous, even in their death, are called living’, and ‘the evil, even while living, are called dead’, evil people leave no real trace of existence on Earth once they physically die, while the truly righteous still ‘live on’ even after physical death. We also know that a dead person’s existence in this world can continue through the children he leaves behind and their good deeds. As such, the only one who could be called ‘alive’ even after death was Yaakov Avinu; only he continued to fully exist after physical death, as only his children were completely righteous and followed in his ways. The children reflect on the father, as B’nei Israel were like branches emerging from the great tree, their father Yaakov.
-Wow. Perhaps according to the Rif we can understand the difference between Yaakov’s ‘expiration’ and the fact that he ‘did not die’. He did physically die, but continues to live on spiritually.
Let’s try to explore all of this further next week.
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.