By Rabbi Yossy Goldman
He expired and was gathered unto his people.
A book’s title reflects the theme of the book. Likewise, the titles of our parashiyos should be accurate depictions of the subject matter under discussion. Why, then, does the title of our parashah, “Vayechi” – “and he lived” – go on to describe not Yaakov’s life but the very end of his life and, in fact, his death and funeral?
Let me be faithful to Jewish tradition and try to answer one question with another question. Interestingly, the Torah never actually states that Yaakov died. It simply says that “he expired and was gathered unto his people.” This prompted one of the Talmudic sages to expound that “our father Yaakov never died.” Whereupon his colleagues challenged him and asked: Did they then bury Yaakov for no reason? Did they eulogize him in vain? And the Talmud answers–As his descendants live, so does he live (Ta’anis 5b).
Life does not end with the grave. The soul never dies, and the good work that men and women do on earth continues to live on long after their physical passing. More particularly, if there is regeneration, if children emulate the example of their forebears, then their parents and teachers live on through them.
When Yaakov was about to breathe his last, he called his children to gather round his bedside. Our parashah recounts what he told each of them. But the Oral Tradition gives us a behind-the-scenes account. Apparently, Yaakov was anxious to know whether all his offspring were keeping the faith, and he put this concern to them at that time. They replied, “Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad–Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” They were saying that the God of Israel their father would always be their God too. Yaakov was comforted and responded, “Baruch Shem K’vod Malchuso l’olam va’ed – Blessed be the Name of the Glory of His Kingdom forever and ever” – or in plain language, “Baruch Hashem–Thank God!” (Pesachim 56a).
When all of Yaakov’s children remained faithful to his tradition, that was not only a tribute to Yaakov’s memory but the ultimate gift of eternal life bestowed upon him. His spirit lives on, his life’s work continues to flourish, and he is still present in this world as his soul lives on in the next.
Whenever I have been privileged to attend the International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries in New York, with thousands of rabbis and lay leaders in attendance, one of the most special moments for me in an altogether powerful event is when the chairman, Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, does his now-famous global roll call. While I was proud to rise and represent South Africa when our turn came, an even prouder and profoundly moving moment was when the rabbis were asked to indicate in which decade they went out to their respective communities as emissaries of the Rebbe on his shlichus. A handful of old men stood for the 1940s, a somewhat larger group of senior rabbis rose for the 1950s, and so it grew by the decade. But when the call was made for those who had gone out to serve communities around the world after 1994–that is, after the passing of the Rebbe–many hundreds of young rabbis rose.
At that moment, it was clear to everyone in that huge hall that “Yaakov never died.” Just as his students are alive, carry on his teachings, and still answer his call to go out and change the world, so too does the Rebbe live on. Whether it means moving to Belarus or Bangkok, Sydney or Siberia, Alaska or the bottom of Africa, the Rebbe’s mission is still moving people, literally and spiritually.
In following his path, Yaakov’s children immortalized him. Such a parashah is aptly entitled “Vayechi”–“and he lived.” Ultimately, our children make us immortal. And so do our students, our spiritual children. May we each be privileged to raise families and disciples who will be true Children of Israel, faithful to our father Yaakov and the God of Israel. Amen.
Rabbi Yossy Goldman was born in Brooklyn and was sent in 1976 by the Lubavitcher Rebbe as an emissary to serve the Jewish community of Johannesburg, South Africa. He is senior rabbi of the Sydenham Shul and president of the South African Rabbinical Association. His sefer “From Where I Stand: Life Messages from the Weekly Torah Reading” was published by Ktav and is available at Jewish book shops or online at www.ktav.com.