A Drash for VaYechi (5768/2007)
by Marc Mangel
This week’s parsha is about the death of Jacob. And yet it begins with the words “Jacob lived” whereas it could have begun with “And Jacob died in Egypt, after being there seventeen years”. We are given extraordinary detail about the death of Jacob. Perhaps this is because Jacob is the only of the Patriachs to die on foreign soil. Perhaps because we are the Children of Israel and he is our role model.
We experienced the same pattern in the parsha about the death of Sarah, which is called “Chayei Sarah” – Sarah’s lifetime?
What is the Torah teaching us here? That what matters is how we lead our lives. Indeed, we can choose how to lead our lives, but not how we die. We can choose how we respond to situations, but often not the situation.
In the course of this parsha, he is still referred to sometimes as Jacob and sometimes as Israel. What are we to learn from this? Reb Bachya, in Snai Luchot HaBrit, says that even at the end of his life, the Divine presence could leave Israel and he would revert to Jacob. This was a person who had to struggle to maintain connection with the divine, very much unlike his grandfather Abraham for whom the Divine presence was always present.
In Pesachim, it is taught that Jacob says “Shma Yisrael…” and his sons respond “Baruch Shem…” About this teaching, Reb Moshe Feinstein, a modern Orthodox rabbi, notes that “Baruch shem …” is said when we need to strengthen our faith and that we whisper it because we are embarrassed to announce out loud a temporary lapse of faith.
But should we be ashamed? The lesson of this parsha about how to lead our lives can be seen by taking these two comments together:
• It is hard to keep the Divine presence with us
• It is common to need to strengthen our faith
In “Natan Der Wise”, a play about a Jewish advisor in the Ottoman court, Lessing wrote that “the search for truth is more important and its possession”. This was one of Einstein’s favorite sayings.
Perhaps lesson of Jacob’s life is that the struggle to keep the Divine presence with us is more important than its possession.
Reb Faitel Levin, in his book about the philosophy of the Rebbe, writes that “man’s particular greatness lies in engaging, not escaping the indifferent physical world into which he is created, and transforming it into a Dwelling Place for God”.
May we all be like Jacob.