Two parshiyot in Genesis have names about life, yet spotlight death. In parashat Hayei Sarah, “Sarah’s Life,” Sarah and Abraham die. In our parasha, Vayehi, “And [Jacob] Lived,” Jacob and Joseph die. To make the point, the final phrase of our parasha is “in a coffin.”
Why are these two parshiyot, with titles focused on life, filled with so much death?
These titles and their content highlight the incongruousness of life and death. Are their names an attempt to argue that finite life can supplant infinite death?
Within Judaism, the emphasis on memory, zikaron, is a way we abrogate death: saying Kaddish and Yizkor; naming our children after someone from a previous generation; the practice of quoting Rashi or Sforno in the present tense, even though they lived centuries ago.
In addition, there is the orientation of the Haggadah, as we recount events of thousands of years ago as if they were happening at that current moment.
To say this in a secular key, we are still able to listen to the recording of an ailing Leonard Bernstein conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood in 1990 in what became the final concert of his life.
Commenting on the beginning of our parasha, Rashi asks, “Why is the passage ‘closed’?” (Gen 47:28). He is referencing the usual large space between one parasha and the next, whereas a space of only one letter separates this week’s parasha from last week’s.
Many explanations of this phenomenon have been offered. Bernstein once said, “In my end is my beginning.” Perhaps the visual calligraphy of the Torah this week reminds us that endings and beginnings may not always be so separate.
MUCH OF our parasha revolves around Jacob, on his deathbed, offering final words to his sons. Framing that scene, Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg writes:
“The problem is one of survival. A deathly darkness falls over Jacob as he confronts his family and their future. Egypt is quintessential exile: the first exile, the paradigm exile. The whole family, in search of bread, has ‘gone down’ into Egypt – an idiom not merely geographical, indicating a movement southward, but existential in resonance. Downward is deathward. If, to Hamlet, Denmark is a prison, then to Jacob, Egypt is a grave that threatens to swallow his family’s aspiration for a distinct destiny.”
“The problem is one of survival. A deathly darkness falls over Jacob as he confronts his family and their future. Egypt is quintessential exile: the first exile, the paradigm exile. The whole family, in search of bread, has ‘gone down’ into Egypt – an idiom not merely geographical, indicating a movement southward, but existential in resonance. Downward is deathward. If, to Hamlet, Denmark is a prison, then to Jacob, Egypt is a grave that threatens to swallow his family’s aspiration for a distinct destiny.”Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg
Jacob is worried about the future of the Jewish people. In Genesis Rabbah 96, Jacob says to his sons, “I beg of you, honor the Holy One, blessed be God, as my fathers so honored, as it says ‘The God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac did walk’” (Gen. 48:15). To assure their father not to worry, they said, “Sh’ma Yisrael A-do-nai E-lo-hei-nu, A-do-nai ehad” (Deut. 6:4). This principal verse within Judaism can be understood as Sh’ma Yisrael: Listen, Israel – another name for Jacob, and so in this instance, Listen Abba/Father; A-do-nai E-lo-hei-nu: that which we call A-do-nai (Lord) is E-lo-hei-nu, is our God as you have taught us; A-do-nai ehad: and A-do-nai is ehad, meaning we know A-do-nai is not only our God but is the only one (ehad) in the world, and all these idols we see around us mean nothing. Jacob, relieved, responded, “Baruch shem kevod malchuto l’olam va’ed, Blessed be the name of the glory of God’s kingdom forever and ever.”
Jacob is weak, near death, so he whispered those words. In many siddurim, we see a similar choreography instructing us to say that line also in a whisper, except on Yom Kippur.
In the Midrash, we find two explanations why “Baruch shem” follows the Shema, and why the former is said silently. The reason an explanation is needed is that the Shema is found in the Torah, but not “Baruch shem” – it is not even found in the Bible. Its source is the Mishna (Yoma 6:2), where we learn that on Yom Kippur, after the high priest conferred the sins of the people onto the scapegoat, using the “ineffable Name” of God, the people prostrated and replied, “Baruch shem kevod malchuto l’olam va’ed.” Rabbi Reuven Hammer points out that these words “are an adaptation of Psalm 72:19.”
A midrash explains that during the revelation at Sinai, after Moses heard God say “Sh’ma Yisrael,” the people completed the sentence “A-do-nai E-lo-hei-nu, A-do-nai ehad,” to which Moses replied, “Baruch shem kevod malchuto l’olam va’ed” (Deuteronomy Rabbah 2:31).
Another midrash teaches that when Moses ascended to heaven, he heard the ministering angels saying to God, “Baruch shem kevod malchuto l’olam va’ed.” When Moses brought this phrase to Earth, an objection was raised about humans saying something so angelic. Therefore, during the year it is said in a whisper, but on Yom Kippur, when we fast like angels, we say it aloud (Deuteronomy Rabbah 2:36).
We see an ongoing pairing of “Sh’ma” and “Baruch shem kevod” throughout the tradition, including in the midrash about Jacob and his sons, noted above.
When it comes to their placement in the siddur, there is, as we have seen, the complication of placing a phrase not from the Torah amid a number of lines from the Book of Deuteronomy. The Shema is Deuteronomy 6:4. It is followed in the Torah by the “V’ahavta/and you shall love” paragraph, 6:5-9. However, in the siddur the Shema is followed by the “Baruch shem kevod” phrase. As we have also learned, borrowing from some midrashim, it is said in a low intonation throughout the year as a way to acknowledge that it is not from the Torah.
BUT THERE is another dynamic, which brings us back to that midrash about Jacob and his sons. Every time we say the Shema, we address multiple audiences. We say it to the patriarch Jacob. Additionally, as we are using his other name, Yisrael/Israel, we are also saying it to all the generations of “b’nei Yisrael,” after Jacob, and the four mothers of his generation – Leah, Rachel, Bilhah and Zilpah. Finally, if we understand Jacob’s children saying to him “Sh’ma Yisrael” as “listen Abba/Father,” we are also addressing our parents and the more immediate generations that came before us. At that moment in the siddur, we are saying to Jacob and all the subsequent generations that we know we are Jewish, and we are committed to its vibrancy and continuity.
Reaching out to those who came before us and who will come after us touches on the life names of this week’s parasha, Vayehi, and of parashat Hayei Sarah, and their confluence of life and death.
As Bernstein finished conducting the rousing, emotional, and uplifting Seventh Symphony of Beethoven that summer Sunday afternoon at Tanglewood, the crowd erupted in a passionate and loud applause, sensing Bernstein’s mortality, as he had struggled at times to conduct. Within that crowd were my parents. Every time I listen to that recording, I know I am also hearing my parents clapping – my father, of blessed memory, and my mother, still going strong at 93 – and, like Jacob, I am comforted. ■
The writer, a Reconstructionist rabbi, is rabbi emeritus of the Israel Congregation in Manchester Center, Vermont. He teaches at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies on Kibbutz Ketura and at Bennington College.