“The Passing of the Last of the Patriarchs”
by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald
This week’s parasha, parashat Vayechi, is the final parasha of the book of Genesis. In this parasha, Jacob, the last of the patriarchs, passes away and the era of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs comes to an end.
The Torah notes that Jacob lived to age 147, 33 fewer years than his father, Isaac, who passed away at age 180. Some commentators attribute his shortened life to the fact that Jacob, upon first meeting Pharaoh (Genesis 47:8-9), somewhat selfishly complained about the suffering that he had endured throughout his life, failing to acknowledge the good that he had experienced. Others say that Jacob’s “premature” death is attributable to the fact that he had causelessly cursed Rachel, saying to Laban, Genesis 31:32, “With whomever you find your god, he shall not live.” As a result, Jacob’s own years were diminished by 33, the numerical value of the Hebrew word, יִחְיֶה–“yich’yeh,” to live.
In Genesis 48:1, the Torah reports, וַיְהִי אַחֲרֵי הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה, וַיֹּאמֶר לְיוֹסֵף, הִנֵּה אָבִיךָ חֹלֶה; וַיִּקַּח אֶת שְׁנֵי בָנָיו עִמּוֹ, אֶת מְנַשֶּׁה וְאֶת אֶפְרָיִם, and it came to pass after these things that it was said to Joseph, “Behold! Your father is ill.” So Joseph took his two sons, Ephraim and Menashe with him, to visit his ailing father.
The Oznaim L’Torah notes that the Torah’s introduction, “And it came to pass after these things,” indicates that Jacob took ill only after he had arranged to be buried in the land of Israel. The Midrash HaGadol explains that Jacob had been deeply concerned about coming to Egypt, lest his children fail to acknowledge the centrality of the Promised Land. He was fearful that his children would become too comfortable in Egypt and would assimilate among the Egyptian population, and that he himself would die and be buried in Egypt.
Despite the fact that in Genesis 46:4 G-d Himself assured Jacob that He would personally bring Jacob up from Egypt, and that his son, Joseph will place his hands over his eyes, Jacob was still concerned about going to Egypt. It was only after Joseph took an oath that he would bury his father in Canaan, that Jacob felt fully confident that the promise would be properly carried out, and that his children would eventually return to Canaan.
The commentators maintain that the language of the verse, which states “that it was said to Joseph, ‘Behold your father is ill,’” indicates strongly that Joseph was not in regular contact with his father and was not frequently present at his old father’s bedside. Some attribute this to the long estrangement between Joseph and Jacob. Others argue that, to the contrary, it underscores Joseph’s righteousness. Joseph, they claim, was afraid to be with his father, lest Jacob ask him about the details of his sale, forcing him to speak ill of his brothers, and causing his father additional grief. By keeping his distance, there was far less likelihood that Jacob would interrogate him about that embarrassing chapter of his life.
The Midrash suggests that it was Joseph’s son, Ephraim, who informed Joseph of Jacob’s illness. Apparently, Ephraim frequently studied with Jacob and it was he who broke the news to his father that his grandfather was ill.
It is fascinating to note that until this point, there is no mention in scriptures of illness. Now, for the first time, the Torah records, “Behold, your father is ill.”
The Talmud, in Baba Metziah 87a, claims that until the time of Jacob, there was no illness. The Midrash states that normally, a person would simply sneeze and die. Jacob, however, asked for Divine mercy, arguing with the Al-mighty that it is not appropriate for a person to die suddenly. He beseeched G-d to give him time and an opportunity to repent, to prepare a last will and testament for his household. The Al-mighty acceded to his prayers. Thus Jacob became the first man to die of illness, and was given the opportunity to speak with his children to share with them one last lesson. It is for this reason that when one sneezes, it is customary to say: “to life” or “to health,” since sneezing was once a moment of great mortal danger.
Rabbi Ch. Karlini, cited in Iturei Torah, questions whether Jacob was indeed the first to experience illness. Rabbi Karlini points to Genesis 18:1, and G-d’s visit Abram, whom Rashi maintains came to visit Abram who was ill, recovering from his painful circumcision. If that is so, how can the commentators possibly claim that Jacob was the first person to experience illness?
The Tosefot, in Baba Batra 16b, states that Abram wore a precious stone around his neck that would heal people who were ill. Others point out that Abram was not sick, rather he was wounded. Whereas Jacob was the first person to experience illness and to die as a result.
There have been many discussions and debates regarding the merits of sudden death, compared to long, drawn out illnesses that result in death. The Midrash relates that Moses was jealous of his brother, Aaron, and when he saw that Aaron expired with a kiss of G-d, he longed to die in the same pleasant manner as his brother.
Jacob’s plea to G-d seems to indicate that it is better to know that life is coming to an end, to have time to prepare one’s papers, to put life’s issues in order, and to say farewell to one’s loved ones. In addition, there may also be merit to the fact that suffering experienced in this world, will result in less suffering endured in the World to Come.
In the final analysis, we must acknowledge that everything that G-d does is always for His children’s benefit. Whether one experiences a sudden, unexpected, death or a long, lingering demise with much suffering, the fate of G-d’s creatures is always in His hands.
May you be blessed.