Ironically, Parashat VaYechi, which literally means “to live,” marks the deaths of Yaakov Avinu and Yosef HaTzadik. After Yosef is sold to Mitzrayim, a recurring theme of life and death surrounds Yaakov Avinu. The theme begins when Yaakov mourns over Yosef’s “death.” When he first finds out, he cries, “Ki Eireid El Beni Aveil She’olah,” “For I will go down to the grave mourning over my son” (BeReishit 37:35). The theme continues throughout the rest of Yaakov Avinu’s life. The next time the Torah speaks of Yaakov is in Parashat MiKeitz. Yaakov tells his sons to go down to Mitzrayim to get bread so that “VeNichyeh VeLo Namut,” “We may live and not die” (42:2). Then, when Reuven pleads with Yaakov to let him bring Binyamin down to Mitzrayim with the brothers, Yaakov says, “Lo Yeireid Beni Imachem Ki Achiv Meit VeHu Levado Nishar UKra’ahu Ason BaDerech Asher Teilechu Vah VeHoradtem Et Seivati BeYagon She’olah,” “My son shall not go down with you, for his brother is dead and he alone has remained; should disaster befall him on the journey which you shall take, then you will have brought my hoariness in sorrow to the grave” (42:38). Another important moment when this theme is conspicuously displayed occurs in Parashat VaYigash, when Yosef reveals himself to his brothers. The first words he says to them are, “Ani Yosef HaOd Avi Chai,” “I am Yosef. Is my father still alive?” (45:3). When Yaakov finally believes that Yosef is still alive, the Pasuk records, “VaTechi Ruach Yaakov Avihem,” “Yaakov’s spirit was brought back to life” (45:27). In the next Pasuk, Yaakov declares, “Od Yosef Beni Chai Eilechah VeEr’enu BeTerem Amut,” “My son Yosef still lives! I shall go see him before I die.” Finally, when Yaakov sees Yosef, he says, “Amutah HaPa’am Acharei Re’oti Et Panecha Ki Odecha Chai,” “I can die this time after I have finally seen your face, for you are still alive” (46:30). Yaakov’s reaction in the final two Pesukim quoted indicates that he is finally at peace and is ready to die now that he has reunited with his long-lost son.
Parashat VaYechi continues this prominent theme. At the very beginning of the Parashah, the Pasuk states, “VaYechi Yaakov BeEretz Mitzrayim Sheva Esrei Shanah VaYhi Yemei Yaakov Shenei Chayav Sheva Shanim VeArba’im UM’at Shanah,” “Yaakov lived seventeen years in Mitzrayim and lived 147 years in all” (47:28). Then the Torah relates that Yaakov called upon Yosef, telling him of Yaakov’s impending death. Yosef promises to his father not to bury Yaakov in Mitzrayim but instead to bury him with his forefathers. Later, Yaakov tells Yosef, “Hineih Anochi Meit,” “I am about to die” (48:21). The theme is on display time and time again as Yaakov gives final Berachot to Efrayim, Menasheh, and his twelve sons. This theme begs a pertinent question: what is the reason for all these Pesukim discussing Yaakov’s death, and how will Yaakov’s death bring these Pesukim to a climax?
After Yaakov has finished blessing his sons, the Pasuk states, “VaYe’esof Raglav El HaMitah VaYigva VaYei’asef El Amav,” “He drew his feet in on his bed, he expired, and he was brought in to his people” (49:23). What does this enigmatic Pasuk mean? What is the explanation for the terms Gevi’ah, expiration, and Asifah, bringing in to one’s people? The Gemara (Bava Batra 16b) states that if Torah records Gevi’ah and Asifah regarding one’s death it means that the person is a true Tzadik. Clearly, Yaakov meets this qualification. However, Rashi is still baffled by this Pasuk—the verse never uses the verb to die, “Lamut,” regarding Yaakov Avinu! To answer the question, Rashi quotes the Gemara (Ta’anit 5b), which records that Yaakov never truly died. This is extremely puzzling. After the explicit theme of Yaakov’s death recurs throughout the preceding Parshiyot, how could Yaakov’s death never have occurred?
Ramban raises the same question: how could Yaakov himself discuss his impending death and never proceed to die? Ramban suggests that maybe Yaakov did not know that he would not die. Alternatively, he did know but, in his great humility, did not want to honor himself. Therefore, he spoke about death like anyone else would, even though he knew he would live forever. However, Ramban raises a new question, based on the later Pasuk, “VaYir’u Achei Yosef Ki Meit Avihem,” “And Yosef’s brothers saw that their father was dead” (50:15). Here, the Torah describes Yaakov’s death in certain terms! Ramban answers that in the brothers’ minds, he was dead; they did not know that he never passed away.
Ramban continues and explains that the Gemara, by stating that Yaakov never died, teaches us that the Nefashot of Tzadikim are “bound in the bind of life by the Eternal One.” The Resisei Lailah expounds on this idea. He states that man consists of two Yetzirot, forms: Nefesh, soul, and Guf, body. The more man focuses on the materialistic world, the more his Nefesh becomes entrenched in his Guf. Death is the time when the Nefesh is ripped away from the body. For those oriented in the materialistic world, this is an excruciating process, in which the Nefesh, which had been implanted into the Guf to the highest degree, is torn away. Yaakov Avinu always stuck to a spiritual “game plan” throughout his worldly life and was never too involved in the material world; hence, his soul was not torn away from his body because his body was simply not a display of his true self. When he died and his Nefesh was removed from his Guf, it was just like removing a shirt. Thus, Chazal say that Yaakov did not die because of the embodiment of spirituality in which Yaakov Avinu possessed. Therefore, the mystery of Yaakov’s supposed “non-death” is a fitting conclusion to the recurring life and death theme throughout these Parashiyot. May we all be Zocheh to achieve some degree of Yaakov’s “immortality.”