A Matter of Life and Death
by Miri Korbman
Mortality is one of the greatest fears and woes of every living being. From the moment we are born, we instinctually know that our time on earth is limited. According to Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalytic theory, this death instinct is an unconscious process that influences many of our behaviors long before we are even exposed to death in some tangible form. We may relive past traumas as a means of processing our acute vulnerability, or engage in aggressive or risky behavior as a means of fighting against an unseen enemy, to protect ourselves from harm, or as a naïve and ultimately futile effort to tempt our finite fate. Yet, Freud postulated that there is another instinct at war with our preoccupation with death, which he called the life instinct. It is what activates us to create, to connect with others, to have children, to live and enjoy our lives, and to leave behind a legacy through which our values and deeds can somehow be immortalized.
Much of secular society operates according this dichotomous understanding of life and death, and many people live their whole lives caught between these two equally terrifying poles. It is probably fair to say that ancient Egypt was one of the most death-obsessed civilizations to date. In this week’s Parsha, Yaakov is approaching the end of his life. He calls to Yosef and tasks him with a critically important dying wish. Asking Yosef to place his hand on his thigh as a symbol of oath, Yaakov beseeches him, “V’Asisa Imadi Chesed V’emes; Al Na Tikbireini BiMitzrayim,” do something kind and truthful for me - please to not bury me in Egypt (47:29). Rather, Yaakov continues, “ViShachavti Im Avosai,” I will lie with my fathers i.e., I wish to be buried among my ancestors, in the Mearas HaMachpeila, in Eretz Canaan (47:30). Yosef agrees to this request, saying, “Ani E’eseh Kidvarech,” I will do as you say. Yet, this is not sufficient for Yaakov, who insists, “Hishavah Li,” swear to me (47:31). Yosef swears, and the matter is sealed.
Rashi explains according to Breishis Rabbah (76:3) that Yaakov wanted to be buried in the Land of Israel for three reasons: to avoid the lice that would swarm the land of Egypt during the plagues, to prevent his body from being worshipped as a foreign god by the Egyptians, and in order to be already present in the Land of Israel at the end of days. This would ensure that his body would not have to roll through the ground to reach its destination for Techiyas HaMeisim, resurrection of the dead.
As Yaakov reaches the end of his life, he demonstrates a firm and unflinching belief in a life after this life. The Sforno points out Yaakov’s concern about being buried in Egypt extended to not even wanting his body interred in an Egyptian coffin temporarily, for he knew that the Egyptians were so obsessed with the burial process, and would want to oversee his if his burial was not immediately arranged for by the viceroy outside of Egypt. This is why Yaakov makes Yosef swear to this task, so that he has a reasonable defense for his actions that would satisfy the Egyptians when the time came. A study of ancient history (and perusal of the editors’ comments on the English translation of the Sforno) highlights the Egyptian preoccupation with the importance of the manner of burial, including everything from mummification, to elaborate burial plots and entombing all manner of wealth and riches alongside the dead, to pyramidal shrines and mausoleums that stand in blinding glory until today.
Yaakov’s obsession was not with the manner of his death, but with the very sensitive and essential matter of life. Yaakov is concerned with what he knows is the true life after death, rather than the Egyptian “afterlife”.
Techiyas HaMeisim is not the only facet of life after life that Yaakov is concerned with in the days before his death. Throughout the rest of the Parsha, Yaakov’s focuses his efforts on ensuring his legacy. He blesses his grandchildren, Efraim and Menashe, first with a prayer that lulls countless Jewish children to sleep each night (48:16; “HaMalacha HaGoel) and then with a blessing that echoes in Jewish homes the world over every Friday night for generations (48:20). Next, he gathers all his children together, ostensibly to tell them “what will happen to [them] at the end of days” (49:1). Rashi explains that Yaakov wished to reveal to them when the end of days will come, but the Divine inspiration left him, and he was unable to reveal this information. Yet, Yaakov’s intention was clearly to impart this information to his children, highlighting Yaakov’s continued concern about the end of days - in his final hours, Yaakov recognizes the drive to continue, to foster growth and success in his children, to bring his legacy to fulfillment even after he is gone.
Rav Immanuel Bernstein explains that the reason Yaakov wants to reveal the Keitz, the end of days, is because after living in his own personal Galus for most of his life, he is now living peacefully among all of his sons for the first time, his own personal Geulah. As such, he wants to impart to his children that all hope is not yet lost, particularly as he knows they are about to descend into exile. Yet Yaakov is blocked from doing so because being the children of Israel means living as Yaakov did; we don’t get to know the ending until we are there, and must live in the darkness without certainty or clarity in order to later appreciate the light. This is Yaakov’s legacy, and this is just part of how he lives on.
Finally, Yaakov blesses each child, highlighting each of the Shevatim’s strengths and weaknesses, because life is also about the opportunity to give one’s children the ability to maximize their potential. With this, Yaakov’s life and legacy in many ways is complete. This is why the Parsha is called Vayechi, emphasizing the life Yaakov lived, the length of his days, the enormity of his experiences, including all of his tragic trials and tribulations. We refer not to his death, but to his life. Much as we do in Parshas Chayei Sarah, we place our emphasis on our instinct to live life in a fulfilling way, and see death not as an end, but as a new beginning.
In many ways, life in this world culminates in life in the next world. Due to our limited finite understanding, we are certain only about this life, that which we can touch, feel, see, and experience, the tangibles of “life” as we know it. Yet the foundation of our belief system is intertwined with the reality of this life being an antechamber to the next world (Mesilas Yesharim 1:3). However, it is integral to remember that just because this world is the place of preparation does not make it any less valuable than the actual grand ballroom for which we are readying ourselves.
In Jewish thought, the death instinct is also driving us at all times, but it is a different kind of instinct, that demands a completely different kind of response from the kind theorized by Freud. On the Days of Awe in Unesaneh Tokef, we remind ourselves, “adam yisodo me’afar v’sofo l’afar,” man is derived from dust and returns to the dust, and David HaMelech alludes to this theme of death as a humbling inevitability throughout Sefer Tehillim. But the intention of these verses is not to scare us, to alert us to danger, to activate our aggression, or to motivate us to take risks, to live for today for tomorrow we die. Rather, these verses make us stop and think about how to live, and for what we are living.
I speak primarily to and for myself when I say that living for Olam HaBah can often feel like a foreign, wispy, ethereal, intangibly esoteric idea. As such, deriving a lesson from the contrast between Yaakov’s view of life and death and the secular view of the same may feel difficult or even impossible. At the same time, each of us is constantly creating a legacy. What will you be known for? What are you living for, and what will your life lead to? Who will your students, children, friends, coworkers, remember? How will they be changed or impacted because of you? What messages are essential to who you are, and what ways can you find to channel those into the world? We are all racing against a clock we cannot see; let us be preoccupied not with death as the end of the race, but with life – in this world and the next, in this generation and the next – as the journey.
There is no easy or simple way to speak about matters as expansive and complex as life and death. I humbly submit the above only as a set of thoughts and ideas, rather than as a treatise or position on either matter. I recognize the sensitivity of this subject, the questions that the matter of death and life both can bring up in all of us, the impact of loss on every person at every stage, and the terrible ache of lives cut short. It is painfully difficult not to have the answers to all that gnaws at us when it comes to these powerful and gutting questions. I wish us all the strength to persevere in the shadow of death and loss, and the courage to reach out for help when we need it.