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Living On after Death

  • Living On after Death

    Va-y'chi, Genesis 47:28–50:26
D'var Torah By: 

"I don't want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying. I don't want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen; I want to live on in my apartment." (Woody Allen)1

At the moment when Abraham Lincoln breathed his last breath, felled by an assassin's bullet, the mourners surrounding his bed looked to the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton. According to Lincoln's secretary John Hay, Stanton said of Lincoln, "Now he belongs to the ages."2 As one writer described the words of this verbal epitaph: "They seem perfectly chosen, in their bare and stoical evocation of a Lincoln who belongs to history alone, their invocation not of an assumption to an afterlife but of a long reign in the corridors of time, a man now part of eternity."3

There is a debate about what, exactly, Stanton said in that moment. Another writer renders Stanton's words as, "Now he belongs to the angels."4 Such a word choice conjures an image of a faithful Christian present at the passing of a saintly hero, professing a belief that Lincoln's soul had ascended to heaven. Left with conflicting eyewitness accounts, we will never know for sure what Stanton actually said.

This week, the Torah recounts what Jacob said on his deathbed. Having lived 147 years, as Jacob prepares to breathe his last breath, he charges his sons with one final request:

"When I am gathered to my people, bury me with my ancestors—in the cave that is in the field of Machpelah . . . There they buried Abraham and his wife Sarah, there they buried Isaac and his wife Rebekah, and there I buried Leah." (Genesis 49:29-31)

At the moment of death, the Torah says Jacob is "gathered to his people" (Genesis 49:33). Literally speaking, he is gathered to his people when Joseph and the brothers bury him in the ancestral tomb. Metaphorically, Jacob is gathered to his people by the legacy he leaves behind. With his sons and their children secure under Joseph's care in Egypt, Jacob takes his place among his ancestors, forever remembered alongside them. There is no talk of otherworldly afterlife. Rather, his family and his legacy occupy Jacob in his final moments. He achieves symbolic immortality through his children. Now Jacob belongs to the ages.

The Talmudic Sages described this type of immortality:

Thus said Rabbi Yochanan: Jacob our patriarch is not dead. [Rabbi Nachman] objected: Was it then in vain that the mourners mourned, the embalmers embalmed, and the buriers buried? The other replied: I derive this from a scriptural verse, as it is said, "But you, have no fear, My servant Jacob—declares the Eternal—Be not dismayed, O Israel! I will deliver you from far away, your descendants from their land of captivity" [Jeremiah 30:10]. The verse likens him [Jacob] to his offspring [Israel]; as his offspring will then be alive, so he too will be alive. (Babylonian Talmud, Ta'anit 5b)

Jacob lives on through his children, in the life of the nation that sprang forth from his family line and bears his name. In procreation, there is a glimpse of life eternal. Each generation is a regeneration of ancestors.

In 1973, Ernest Becker wrote The Denial of Death,5 arguing that Western civilization was constructed to buffer us against the knowledge of our own mortality. Humans can engage in an "immortality project" by joining a group or tradition that will live on after the individual's death. Being part of such a project lets the individual share in a sense of eternity. On a micro level, having children is an immortality project.

On a macro level, being Jewish is an immortality project. Judaism offers membership in a collective that stretches temporally between past and future. Participation in this project bestows immortality by linking our story in an unbroken chain, from our ancestors through us to the next generation.

Judaism is not simply a project of self-propagation, nor does its promise of immortality require biological children. Judaism as a project involves standing for something, hearing God's call, embodying Torah in word and deed.

If Jacob's immortality came through ensuring his family's success, Joseph's death and burial teach us a broader lesson about the collective enterprise of Judaism. Like Jacob, Joseph makes a deathbed request of his family:

"I am dying, but God will surely take care of you and bring you up out of this land to the land that [God] promised to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob." Joseph adjured Israel's children, saying, "God will surely take care of you; bring my bones up from this place!" Joseph died aged 110 years. They embalmed him and he was put into a coffin in Egypt. (Genesis 50:24-26)

Like his father, Joseph requests burial in the ancestral land. But there is a dark undertone in Joseph's dying wish: he knows his request will not be fulfilled right away, and the ominous phrase aron b'Mitzrayim, "coffin in Egypt," forebodes the Egyptian slavery into which Joseph's kin will soon descend.

But it is also this aron, and one other, that cemented Joseph's immortality and made it available to us. We learn in Exodus that the Israelites carried Joseph's bones out of Egypt with them (Exodus 13:19) to be buried ultimately at the time of Joshua's death in the Promised Land (Joshua 24:32). Our tradition understands that they carried his remains in an aron, a coffin—a word that also means "ark." The more famous ark accompanying the Israelites in the desert contained the tablets of the covenant, received by Moses on Mt. Sinai. The Talmudic Sages teach us about the significance of each aron, the coffin of Joseph and the Ark of the Covenant:

All those years that the Israelites were in the wilderness, those two aronot, one of the dead [Joseph] and the other of the Shechinah [God's hovering Presence; this ark also contained the tablets of the covenant], proceeded side by side, and passersby used to ask: "What is the nature of those two arks?" They received the reply: "One is of the dead and the other of the Shechinah." "But is it, then, the way of the dead to proceed with the Shechinah?" They were told, "This one [Joseph] fulfilled all that was written in the other." (Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 13a-b)

The Rabbis define Joseph's significance not by his offspring, like Jacob, but by his adherence to Torah. We can forgive them this (useful) anachronism—Joseph died before the Torah was received. For the Rabbis, and for us, Joseph mattered because he stood for Torah, and he continued the Jewish story. The coffin containing his bones was worthy of accompanying the Ark of the Covenant because he was the living embodiment of what God's Revelation came to teach. He earned his place in the annals of our people by planting the seed that would sprout into our eternal covenant. We earn our place when the seeds of our deeds blossom even after our death.

The Torah may not have much to say about the afterlife or dwelling with the angels. Maybe it can't satisfy Woody Allen's yearning for bodily immortality. But the Torah does call us to participate in an eternal story spanning time and space, linking past and future through our present. It teaches us how to live a life that matters, a life of lasting impact, a life worthy of being called, by those who look back on it, one for the ages.

1. Woody Allen in W. Allen, L. Sunshine, The Illustrated Woody Allen Reader (NY: Knopf, 1993)

2. See John G. Nicolay, A Short Life of Abraham Lincoln, condensed from Nicolay & Hay's Abraham Lincoln: A History (NY: The Century Co., 1904)

3. Adam Gopnick, "Angels and Ages," The New Yorker, May 28, 2007

4. Ibid., Gopnick; also see James L. Swanson, Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer (NY: William Morrow Paperbacks, 2007)

5. Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death (NY: The Free Press, 1973)

Rabbi David Segal is the spiritual leader of the Aspen Jewish Congregation in Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley of Colorado. He was ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York and is an alumnus of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship.

In Every Generation . . .
Davar Acher By: 
Evan Schultz

Rabbi Segal presents an excellent picture of Jewish immortality, examining the ways in which Joseph's bones serve as a reminder to the Israelites to live a life of Torah. By carrying the ark, or aron, of Joseph alongside the ark of the Shechinah, the expectation was that the Israelites would have access not only to the words of the covenant, but also to an individual, Joseph, who adhered to the words of Torah throughout his life.

The challenge, however, is that Joseph's bones were not quite sufficient in keeping the Israelites from going astray. The Israelites, in fact, were much better at forgetting than they were at remembering. Just as Exodus opens with a Pharaoh who does not know Joseph, it seems that the Israelites of that time also do not know who he is. Our tradition teaches that upon leaving Egypt, only one woman, Serah bat Asher, knew Joseph and where his bones were buried.1 It does not take long for the Israelites, fresh into the wilderness, to turn to idol worship and rebellion against God, despite the aron of Joseph wandering alongside them in the wilderness. It seems that the physical reminder of his life was an insufficient reminder for the Israelites to follow fully the path of God and lead a life of mitzvot.

What then creates a timeless community of Torah, as Rabbi Segal discusses in his essay? Certainly, knowing who came before us, as in the case of the Israelites with Joseph, and carrying the words of Torah closely by our side, as the Israelites carried the aron through the wilderness. I think there is a third component, however. People of each generation also must build their own relationships and memories with one another; they cannot be solely a community inspired by the actions of those who came before them. Each generation must attempt its own version of the narrative. If there is one thing we can glean from the Book of Genesis, it is that every cohort is unique; each of our ancestors had their own relationship with God. The more time we spend with our communities and the more we build thick relationships with one another, the more we will be inspired not only by Torah, but also by one another, to walk in the path of God and live a life celebrated for eternity.

  1. Sefer ha-Yashar, Vayigash, chapter 14; Genesis 46:17

Rabbi Evan Schultz is the assistant rabbi at Congregation B'nai Israel in Bridgeport, Connecticut. He was ordained from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York in 2012.

Reference Materials: 

Va-y’chi, Genesis 47:28–50:26
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 302–316; Revised Edition, pp. 304–322; 
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 281–304

When do we read Va-y'chi

2020, January 11
14 Tevet, 5780
2021, January 2
18 Tevet, 5781
2021, December 18
14 Tevet, 5782
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