Parasha Vayehi: Living to tell the tale

‘“And Jacob called to his sons and said ‘Gather together and I shall tell you what will befall you at the end of days’” (Genesis 49:1)

African Lion couple (photo credit: AP)
African Lion couple
(photo credit: AP)
The mesmerizing and majestic historical parable of Jacob and his sons comes to a riveting but peaceful climax: His 12 sons gather around the patriarch’s deathbed for a final assessment of their characters, and the blessings which will carry them into the future collectively as the Children of Israel. Jacob/Israel, wise and matured as a result of his years of suffering and struggle, has learned to honestly confront rather than circumvent, and so is starkly honest in his short but pithy charges: “As fickle, as quixotic as water... cursed be their anger, for it is fierce.” Nevertheless, he paints a broad canvas that concludes with: “And unto him shall be the gathering of the nations... until he shall apportion the spoils in the evening” when the enemies will be vanquished and the ultimate peace will arrive. The picture that emerges is nebulous, but it makes clear that at the end of days, the brothers together will realize the mission of the Abrahamic covenant.
Is it not strange, however, that a biblical portion whose central feature is Jacob’s deathbed scene with “Joseph falling on his [dead] father’s face weeping over him and kissing him” and “all of Egypt weeping [for Jacob] for 70 days” (Genesis 50:2-4) opens with the word by which this portion is identified “Vayehi” – “And he lived.” It is not true! Jacob-Israel, whom we have come to know and love and identify with, is now dead. Similarly, the earlier portion that deals with the death and burial of the matriarch Sarah – and tells how “Abraham eulogized her and wept over her” – is called “Hayei Sarah,” the Life of Sarah.
Is this not a strange pattern? Dr. Eric Cohen, in his important study, “In the Shadow of Progress: Being Human in the Age of Technology,” makes the telling point that death – an inescapable fact of life – is not tragic as long as one leaves behind individuals who will continue our narrative. Much the opposite, a death that is surrounded by those who will take up the baton carried by the deceased is a triumph and not a tragedy.
Let us hark back to the first time death is described in the Bible, when God punishes Adam for eating the forbidden fruit: “By the sweat of your brow shall you eat your bread until you return to the earth from which you were taken, because you are dust and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19). The very next verse, the penultimate verse in the chapter, continues with what appears to be a non-sequitur: “And Adam named his wife Hava [Eve], for she was to be the mother of all life (hai).” Now if the significance of the name was to be mother-of-all-life, her name should have been “Haya” and not “Hava”; Hava means the one who narrates, who expresses a story, prayer or lesson. And that is precisely the point: When God elected Abraham and charged him with the mission of bringing the message of compassionate righteousness and moral justice (Gen.
18:18,19) to all the families of the earth, He didn’t expect him to complete the job in his lifetime. He expected the generations within the Covenant of Abraham to eventually succeed as a holy nation and a kingdom of priest-teachers. The generation that succeeds will usher in Messianic times; but they will not have done it by themselves. They are the result of the myriads of parents, teachers and enablers who came before them. The mother-of-all-life is thus the bearer of the narrative from generation to generation; insofar as you have a successor (one you have borne or influenced) who takes your baton, and sets out to transmit the asyet- unfinished symphony, you continue to live as well.
The first time I visited Munich, Germany, I was struck by the fact that I didn’t see any children; when I commented on this at a public lecture, someone in the audience responded: “We Europeans have no patience for whatever makes noise and dirt which we cannot control.”
As I pondered his retort, I realized that in the era of contraception, unless you have a compelling narrative to transmit, there is really no reason to have children; they take a lot of time, effort and money, and the results are far from certain. Most of Europe has negative population growth – apparently because not enough people feel compelled to continue their narrative. Hopefully, we Jews do feel compelled. Some day we shall conclude the symphony, and the entire world will be blessed.