On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah - Va-y'chi: What Lives on of Us When We Die?

Jacob’s death, which takes place in parashat Va-y’chi, marks the end of an epoch in the life of the Jewish people. Discussing the final Torah portion in the book of Genesis – and the last we’ll read in 2017 – Rabbi Rick Jacobs explores: What does it mean to live on after our time on earth has ended? What kind of legacy do we leave behind?

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Welcome to On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah, a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Every week Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, shares a new spin on the weekly Torah portion in about 10 minutes or less. Some weeks he is joined by special guests and some weeks he just shares his own perspective. But On the Other Hand always provides a modern take on over 2,000 years of Jewish wisdom. This week, episode 101, Rabbi Jacobs teaches us about Parashat Va-y’chi and asks what it means to live on even after your time here has ended.

This week we focus our attention on par Parashat Va-y’chi, the very last Torah portion of the Book of Genesis. Also the last Torah portion that we’ll read in the year 2017, because just after this Shabbat we will have something we call in in America—North America—we call this New Year's. And it's another kind of beginning and ending, and of course the Torah portion brings us to that place of concluding the whole set of narratives. It really establishes the whole legacy of our patriarchs and matriarchs. And with the death of Jacob really comes to an end an entire epic in the life of the Jewish people.

What's pretty remarkable is that Jacob gets to do something that not all of us get to do, which is to know that your time is at hand. And he's able to gather all of his children and to offer each one of them a personal blessing and benediction, the chance to really impart the words that will help to guide their lives.

And then we're told in the way that only the Torah can say at the very end, “va-yeasef el-amav,” - and he was gathered unto his ancestors and to his people. And of course it's a remarkable phrase and the phrase actually is used to describe so many of the of the great ones of our biblical tradition. And the classical Jewish commentators are trying to figure out what does that actually mean, to be gathered onto your ancestors? Is that a vision of a next world where all the souls are, in a sense, unified?

Ralbag, a French commentator of the 14th century, taught that “gathered to his people” means “Connected with the soul. For while it is the body, as it were in isolation, when the soul leaves the body it rejoins the source and is gathered back to its glory.”

Sforno, an Italian commentator who lived through the Inquisition, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, found great solace in the phrase yeasaf el-amav, gathered unto his people. For Sforno, the words meant gathered unto the bond of eternal life with the righteous of all generations.

Va-y’chi. It literally means, “And he lived.” The irony is of course, the Torah portion talks about his death. But there's something about not only Jacob, there's something about each of us that that lives on after us. So I'd like to spend a couple of minutes with you during the podcast today thinking about this larger question.

What's also amazing is in Va-y’chi, Jacob exacts a promise. And I'll read the exact quote from Chapter 47 of Genesis, Verse 29, it says, “And when the time drew near for Israel to die (Jacob), he summoned his son Joseph and said to him, ‘Do me this favor. Place your hand under my thigh as a pledge of your steadfast loyalty. Please do not bury me in Egypt. When I lie down with my ancestors, take me out from Egypt and bury me in their burial place.’ Replied Joseph, ‘I will do as you have spoken.’”

So maybe it's also more of a temporal statement of being gathered into one's ancestors, not simply the next world where souls are gathered. And so this promise is exacted.

And when the time comes, they carry Jacob from the land of Egypt and bury him in the tomb of the patriarchs and matriarchs. It made me wonder about this deep connection that so many of us have to the Land of Israel. And a friend of mine's father passed away just a little while back. And he lived his life here in North America but wanted, wanted, wanted his children, when the time came, to bury him in the Land of Israel.

 So one of the questions that arises is, what is this connection that we have? We're called the people who live in the Diaspora. I've said recently, I think we're better off calling us “world Jewry,” that we have a great center in Israel, our bond with Israel is deep, it goes back millennia. But we're also at home in the world. And one of the questions is, why not Egypt? Why could Jacob not imagine his burial place to be in Egypt? After all, his son Joseph was the equivalent of the second in command to Pharaoh. Why not celebrate that place of honor and dignity? Well, the answer is probably many fold.

I want to fast forward to the contemporary world. You may know that Theodore Herzl is called the father of modern Zionism. And it turns out that Herzl died fairly young. He was 44 years old, he died in 1904.

And he so deeply believed im tirtzu ein zo agada. He believed that in his extended life, there would be a state of Israel. He said, predicted within 50 years, and of course within 50 years there is a state of Israel. So he was buried initially in Vienna. But he stipulated, almost like Jacob asking Joseph to swear, he said, when the state is created, and he believed it would be, make sure that my final resting place is in Jerusalem.

And sure enough, Israel's created and a year after Israeli independence in 1949, they bring Herzl’s body. But it wasn't just Herzl’s body that Herzl promised. He wanted all of his close family to be buried in Israel. So after his burial, the bodies of Herzl's parents and sister were also brought. And then just a couple of years ago the bodies of his two children Pauline and Hans were also buried in Jerusalem. But it was a little tricky because of a suicide and some of the rules the very traditional rules about burial.

But I want to just focus on his grandson, which is a kind of extraordinary story. The only grandchild that the Herzl had in his name was Steven Theodore Norman.

And it turns out that he was buried in 1946 in Washington D.C. without even a tombstone. He was really a nobody. He had taken his life. Why did he take his life? He took his life because he learned that his mother had been killed in the Holocaust and he was despondent and took his life. And was buried really anonymously in this grave in Washington D.C.. But it was about 10 years ago that that that actually was rectified, and his remains were disinterred and brought to Mount Herzl in Jerusalem and interred there.

What's pretty amazing is that Herzl’s grandson was the one who really carried the torch of feeling a deep connection to Israel. And in fact when he was just recently out of the army he went on a visit to Israel, and he wrote these words of what he experienced. He said, “My desire to visit Israel was of many years standing. I cannot say that my upbringing had been markedly Jewish or Orthodox, nor was the idea of Zionism, in spite of my family connection with it, ever at any time rammed down my throat, either at home or subsequently at school and university. But I had found and read my grandfather's writings that I believed in the idea and the aims of Zionism and in the moral, ethical, economic, and social need for it had been made even more urgent and important by world events and the tremendous problems created by the new scientific anti-Semitism of the last decades.” And then he went on to describe the faces of the people that he experienced in Israel, and in the end he says the following, “My visit to Palestine is over. It is said that to leave Israel is to die a little, and I know that when I left Eretz Yisrael I died a little. But surely then to return is somehow to be reborn, and I will return.”

Amazingly, this young grandson of the founder of Zionism knew that he would return, not in his life but in his death, and that he would feel an eternal connection not just to his grandfather and not just to his family but to the state of Israel that he was able to visit before statehood.

And remarkably, here was probably one of the least Jewishly connected members of a very disconnected Jewish family called the Herzl family. And yet, he had that deep longing that many of us have, to be connected in life as in death. So we have this Parashat Va-y’chi. We have this promise that Jacob extracts from Joseph, and that they honor that promise and they bury Jacob in the land of Israel. And Theodore Herzl has also a similar hope and promise that he expects of his descendants, that they too will feel that connection and be buried and be a part of the Jewish people’s connection to the land.

So I think of all of us, I don't know where your final resting place will be, if you imagined that you would be buried in the Land of Israel. I know there's a tradition of putting some earth from Israel into graves even in other parts of the world, so as to feel that sense of rootedness and connectedness. I hope that each one of us will live long and good in holy lives. I hope that each of us will have a chance to bless those in our family who we want to impart our innermost blessing to. And I hope that in whatever way we can, Va-y’chi, that our lives will matter long after we are gone.

Theodore Herzl has no descendants with the death of his grandson. The line of Theodore Herzl comes to an end. But he lives, he lives now in Mount Herzl. He lives in the hopes and dreams of the Jewish people, in our connection to the land. Va-y’chi, he lives. May each of us is so blessed.

Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of On the Other Hand: 10 Minutes of Torah. If you liked 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 rate and 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: 10 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.