On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah - Va-y'chi: What Lives After Death

Va-y’chi, the title of the last parashah of the book of Genesis, translates to “and he lived.” It’s an odd title for a parashah that details the death of Jacob and Joseph. But the thing about Jacob, Joseph, and many righteous people, is that their values and legacies continue to live on after they die. In this week’s On the Other Hand, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, tells us about those legacies, and more.


Three ways to listen:


[00:00:00] Welcome to Episode 51 of On the Other Hand, Ten Minutes of Torah, a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week, we reflect on more than 2000 years of Jewish wisdom in just ten minutes, with modern day commentary on the weekly Torah portion. Of course, we think there are plenty of ways to interpret Torah. We want to hear what you think. So talk to us on Twitter. Our handle is @ReformJudaism. Or, like us at Facebook.com/ReformJudaism. And remember to subscribe to the podcast on iTunes. This week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, teaches us a bit about Parsha Va-y'chi. He wonders where home is for you. And he also asks, who are the people in your life that may have died, but who clearly still live on.

[00:00:45] This week, we focus on Parsha Va-y'chi. It's the last Torah portion of the Book of Genesis and it really is the end of a whole set of narratives about the first families, the first generations of the Jewish people. It's entitled Va-y'chi, which means literally "and he lived." And in that classic way, the biblical texts start with something as simple as "and he lived." We learn right afterwards that Jacob dies. At the very end of the book, Joseph dies as well and yet the title is Va-y'chi, "and he lived." Of course the Talmud in tractate Taanit asked the question, how is it possible that we focus the Parsha on he lived and it actually talks about his death? And the Talmud goes on to say that with righteous people, there's a physical death. But then there's the length that someone's life and legacy and values could live on after them. So even in their death, they continue to live.

[00:01:51] It's a powerful narrative because one of the things that Jacob insists on to his son Joseph is that when he dies that he'll be buried in Egypt. But he says very, very specifically. Promise me. Swear to me that when we leave this place, this place it is not the land of Israel that you will take me with me with you. You will take me with you and not leave me buried in this soil. I want to be buried in the land of Israel.

[00:02:27] And of course the promise is a promise that has to be fulfilled. And it's a powerful teaching to us about where is home. Where are we in the world? Is home wherever we are? Do we have an incredible attachment to that land, the land of Israel?

[00:02:46] And so I think it raises the question for all of us: where, where is it that we are at home? And we even have the tradition, I know that when I officiated at the funeral of an aunt of mine, and we buried her where she wanted to be buried within the Rocky Mountains...We had no family around there and I remember the burial. We were putting the earth in the grave as our tradition commands us. And the funeral home, the Jewish funeral home, provided these little bags of soil from Eretz Yisrael, from the land of Israel. And honestly it was one the most comforting things, because here we were in this place that none of us knew with really no local connection. And we put some of the earth and the land of Israel into the grave and it felt as if there was a little bit of home even in a place that was not experienced as home.

[00:03:41] I know that all of us as we talk in this Parsha about the death and the dying of loved ones, it awakens for all of us those stories of our own and our own beloved family members who have gone from this world. There is a beautiful dimension to this Parsha, which is that first, Jacob blesses his sons. And there's a really powerful way in which sometimes we are given that gift where a dying relative could gather all of us and to say what's in their heart and it's such a beautiful, beautiful expression.

[00:04:21] I can't help but think that earlier this year I had the privilege of representing the Reform Movement at the funeral of Shimon Peres in Jerusalem. Shimon Peres, va'y'chi. He died after an incredibly distinguished career not only as Prime Minister and President, but as Defense Minister and is really one of the stalwart leaders of our people. And I felt compelled to go. It was right before Rosh Hashanah. I wasn't the only one. There were leaders from all over the world and we gathered in Jerusalem to say goodbye and to express love and appreciation for Shimon Peres's life and his legacy.

[00:05:02] There are a couple of moments that stand out. I remember as we were moving from the funeral to the burial on Mount Herzl, I was right behind the German Foreign Minister who has, if you've seen an image of him, he has a shock of white hair. Well, as he was entering the gravesite his associate took him by the arm and said wait wait. Again I didn't understand the German, but I understood what was happening and he pulled out of his pocket a blue velvet yarmulke. And handed it to the Foreign Minister of Germany. And in that moment I had such an awakening of what has changed in these just these few years since the Holocaust and much of Shimon Peres's family perished in the Holocaust. And here he was being remembered, and frankly honored, by people from all over the world, leaders from all over the world. And here the German Foreign Minister put on a yarmulke because it was the respectful thing to do. And it wasn't one of those yarmulkes that could sort of blend in, if you have you know a shock of white hair you put a bright blue velvet yarmulke on and everybody is going to notice. And it was just stunning to me how Shimon's life really you know traversed such, such major shifts in Jewish history.

[00:06:23] But the most powerful moment at that burial was when Shimon Peres's daughter Sophia led the Kaddish. And I was standing not that far from the family and I looked as she led the Kaddish with such conviction and strength. She is a leader of our Reform Movement in Israel and the woman is incredible. She's an incredible literary student teacher and really someone who exemplifies our tradition at its best. And she had her two brothers there and they were saying the Kaddish too, but she was leading. And then when it came to the last line of the Kaddish, she said "Oseh Shalom, Bemramov, Who Yaaseh Shalom Aleinu, Yaacov Yisrael," the traditional words of "May the one who makes peace in the high places with Peace be with with us and the Jewish people." And then she added "v'acol b'nay adom," "upon all those who dwell on earth.”

[00:07:20] And I looked at that very moment at the chief rabbis were standing in my sightline and they could not believe that a woman was leading the Kaddish and that she added words to the prayer that had been sanctified over two millennia. And then I looked at a group of secular Israeli leaders and they were really impressed that you could change the Jewish tradition. So in that moment you had all of the incredible weight of history. You had the weight of admiration and love for Shimon Peres. But you also saw the seeds of the future--a future of hope and of change and of a tradition that not only can change, but must change.

[00:08:04] And you had the German Foreign Minister and leaders from all different faith communities and all different nations gathered to remember a patriarch. Not Jacob as in the Parsha. But Shimon, one also of the sons of Jacob. So as we remember our loved ones, the people who still not only guide our lives, but inspire and teach us, because we remember what they lived and what they stood for and how they passed those values to us. I hope each of us in our own families and for the leaders of our people can say Va-y’chi, even in their death they still live. And their lives make our lives better.

[00:08:55] Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of On the Other Hand, Ten Minutes of Torah. If you like what you heard today and we hope you did, you can find new episodes each week at ReformJudaism.org and on iTunes where we would love for you to review us. And you can visit ReformJudaism.org to learn more about all aspects of Judaism including ritual, culture, holidays, and more. On the Other Hand, Ten Minutes of Torah is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life. Until next week, l'hitraot