The following Devar Torah is based on a Shiur delivered by Rav Reuven Taragin of Yeshivat Hakotel at TABC’s Night Seder Program.
In both this week’s Parashah as well as in Parashat Chayei Sarah, the word “life” appears in the title, even though both Parashiyot contain deaths. Why do we title these two Parashiyot with names that are contrary to the actual events that occur within them?
According to the Midrash HaGadol, even though Ya’akov had a bitter life (BeReishit 47:9), the years of his life in Parashat VaYechi were the best years of his life; although he had a difficult life, it ended on a positive note.
Although we are taught that Parashat VaYechi records Ya’akov Avinu’s death, it never actually states that he dies. Rather, it is said about Ya’akov that, “VaYigva VaYei’asef El Amav,” “And he expired and was brought to his people” (BeReishit 49:33). According to Rabi Yochanan (Ta’anit 5a), Ya’akov Avinu never died. Since his children are still alive, he is still alive. This seems to contradict the fact that Ya’akov was both eulogized and buried (Bereishit 50:10-13)! How could Rabi Yochanan possibly argue that Ya’akov never died?
Towards the end of Parashat VaYechi, Ya’akov gives a Berachah to each of his children. Whereas most of the Berachot that Ya’akov bestows are Berachot that one would expect a father to give to his children on his deathbed, Ya’akov’s Berachah to Ephraim and Menasheh is quite peculiar—first, Ya’akov compares Ephraim and Menasheh to Reuven and Shimon, his own sons. Then, Ya’akov blesses them that, “VeYikarei VaHem Shemi VeSheim Avotay Avraham VeYitzchak,” “And may [Jewish children] be called by my name and the name of my fathers, Avraham and Yitzchak” (BeReishit 48:16). Why did Ya’akov compare Ephraim and Menasheh to his own sons? Additionally, why does Ya’akov mention his father and grandfather in their Berachah?
Rav Reuven Taragin notes that Ephraim and Menasheh are the first two Jews raised without the Avot, because they were born before Ya’akov got to Mitzrayim. Yosef’s fear was that his sons would stay in Mitzrayim and assimilate. Therefore, Ya’akov alleviated Yosef’s fears by saying in his Berachah that even though they were born in a foreign country, they would continue the Jewish people and the Jewish legacy. Additionally, Ya’akov mentioned his father and grandfather in Ephraim and Menasheh’s Berachah in order to show them that just as he was molded into the person that he was because of his father and grandfather, they would be able to be future Jewish leaders who continue the Jewish legacy, despite the fact that they were raised in a foreign country.
However, is it actually the case that Ya’akov was a person who valued Jewish ideals and wanted them to be passed on to his descendants? According to a simple reading of the Torah, it seems that Ya’akov was a sneaky person who deceitfully took the Bechor from Eisav and tricked his blind father into giving him the Berachah for the Bechor?
When Ya’akov offered to buy Eisav’s Bechor status, he said, “Michrah Kayom Et BeChoratechah,” “Sell me as of this day your Bechor” (BeReishit 25:31). Rav Reuven Taragin suggests that Ya’akov was right for taking the Bechor from Eisav, because Eisav valued his life only today, not in the future. Since Eisav did not value the Bechorah, he was unworthy of it, and therefore Ya’akov acted properly in taking the Bechorah from Eisav. Eisav believed that life was worthless, since he would eventually die. Ya’akov, on the other hand, valued the long-term continuation of Judaism. According to Rashi (25:30 s.v. Min HaAdom HaAdom), Ya’akov made lentil soup on that day because it was Avraham’s Yahrzeit. It is clear that Ya’akov valued Judaism and its ideals from the fact that he looked up to Avraham, the original father of Judaism, and mourned his death. Because Ya’akov valued his father and grandfather, and because he strived to continue Jewish ideals, it is possible to suggest that he never died—his legacy continued even after his death. We cannot say the same about Avraham and Yitzchak, however, because they had Yishmael and Eisav who killed their legacy.
Although we are currently living in Galut, we must realize that we can achieve spiritual greatness. Just as Ephraim and Menasheh were able to keep Jewish ideals and pass them down to their children in Galut, so too, we can continue Judaism in our children. Just as Ya’akov succeeded in carrying on Judaism by remembering his father and grandfather, so too, we must remember the great people that preceded us to inspire us to continue Judaism. Additionally, we must remember that if we want our children and grandchildren to remain on the path of righteousness, they must be able to look back at us, their parents and grandparents, as an inspiration. By remembering our previous generations and thinking about our future generations’ success, we will be able to continue to be passionate and successful in creating an atmosphere that fosters Jewish ideals, and a love of Hashem.