PARSHAT VA’YEHI: TWO THOUGHTS ON JACOB’S LIFE AND DEATH
MATIA KAM AND AYALA EMMETT
I. Jacob’s Death in a Wider Context–Matia Kam
Placing Jacob’s death in the wider context of Abraham and Isaac’s deaths is striking. Jacob, unlike the forefathers discloses deep sorrow at the end of his life and points to a significant difference between himself and his forefathers. The text in Genesis supports Jacob’s clear distinction that his is unlike his fathers. The text says that Abraham died “at a good and ripe age old and contented” (Genesis 25;8). On Isaac we read that he died “in old ripe age” (Genesis 35:29). Jacob’s death is described as “breathing his last, he was gathered to his people.” No good age, no ripe age and not contented.
Earlier in the Parsha when Jacob stands before Pharaoh to answer the king’s question “How many are the years of your life?” he does what his forefathers have not done. He does not merely offer his age but follows it with a summary of the quality of his life, “Few and hard have been the years of my life.” And one can almost hear Jacob’s silent but painful sigh. Jacob sees his life as suffused with suffering and struggle.
Nachmanides the 13th century commentator is puzzled by Jacob’s personal disclosure to Pharaoh, ‘’few and hard have been the years of my life” and goes on to say that the years of his life “have not come up to the years of my forefathers.” Yet at that point Jacob is still alive and how would he know that he would not live as long as his fathers or even accede them?”
Nachmanides goes on to say, “It seems to me that Jacob looked grayer and older than his years, and Pharaoh is under the impression that Jacob is much older than he is and expresses surprise and Jacob picks up on it and says, ‘The years of my life are one hundred and thirty’ and compared to his fathers that is short of the years of his fathers, and that he looks much older than his chronological age because his life was filled with difficulties, toil and suffering which brought about untimely aging.”
Jacob therefore does not die old, in ripe age, nor in content. He dies in sorrow.
In a broader perspective and following Nachmanides commentary –“The actions of the forefathers are a symbol or sign for the children” seem to indicate more than the sum of Jacob’s personal life; it offers a foreshadowing of the future of his descendants the people Israel and their struggles and sufferings throughout the generations.
II. Jacob A Person in Full–Ayala Emmett
It is interesting that in the encounter with Pharaoh, Jacob does not refer to his renaming as Yisrael/Israel, the one who has struggled with God and people and prevailed, surely an amazing life-changing event, nor does he mention that on his way to Egypt God promises to make him “a great nation.” Instead, Jacob is silent about his larger role as forefather of a nation and focuses instead on his domestic position as husband and father, roles in which he now sees himself flawed. He favored his wife Rachel who died in childbirth yet he continued to consider her as his only wife, ishti, wife in the singular, not one of his wives, or as ishti Rachel, my wife Rachel. He publicly and visibly favored Joseph and Benjamin over all other children. And the non-Rachel sons in response, transgressed, were defiant, and acted with cruelty. Reuven betrayed him, all his sons lied to him about the fate of Joseph and two of his sons, Simeon and Levi took it upon themselves to kill a whole town, seemingly over Dinah’s honor, without consulting/telling Jacob. Jacob’s love for Rachel and for Joseph created resentment, strife and disaster. Jacob at best was careless when he told Joseph years earlier to go look for his brothers knowing their animosity toward Joseph. The reading suggests that when Jacob finds out that Joseph is still alive it becomes for him a moment of facing his own shortcomings. At that moment Jacob does not confront his sons about their deceitful story that a wild animal attacked Joseph. Instead when Jacob learns that Joseph is alive it becomes his moment of accountability and he says, “Enough! My son Joseph is alive I must go and see him” (45:28).
In his cry “Enough,” Jacob steps away from recrimination/ rage/retribution and chooses peace and reconciliation because he feels his own failure in the familial/domestic sphere.
On his way to Egypt Jacob is revealed as a person in full– as a father to his children and forefather to the nation. The text says, “God called to Israel in the vision of the night Jacob! Jacob!” (46:2) God invokes Jacob’s full personhood, first as the forefather Yisrael/Israel reminding him: “I will make you a great nation” and calling on the person Jacob (twice). Jacob says, “Hinneni, Here I am.” Jacob’s name is reiterated, the first time for his life as it has been before the journey to Egypt and the second time because at the onset of the journey he chose peace. History redeems Jacob the sorrowful father/husband and recognizes him as Yisrael/Israel who becomes a nation. Jacob has a place in Jewish tradition in prayers and blessings as an equal among the forefathers and as a reminder of the common sense of saying “Enough!” to endless/senseless strife and of the wisdom of choosing peace as the way forward.