The Faculty of Jewish Studies
The Office of the Campus Rabbi
Parshat Vayechi, 1996
Jacob Our Father Did Not Die
Dr. Avraham Elkayam
Department of Philosophy
Commenting on the verse, "And Jacob finished charging his sons, and he gathered up his feet to the bed and expired, and was gathered to his people" (Gen. 49:33), Rashi says, "It does not say of him that he died, and our Sages have said that Jacob our father did not die [Taanit 5b]."
The passage alluded to in the Talmudic tractate of Taanit, records a discussion between the Palestinian Amora, Rabbi Yitzchak bar Pinchas, known as Rabbi Yitzchak the Aggadist, the outstanding pupil of Rabbi Yochanan, and the Babylonian Amora Rav Nachman. (The Amoraim were the rabbinical authors of the Gemara, the discussion of the Mishna which makes up a large part of the Talmud.) Rabbi Yitzchak said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan, "Jacob our father did not die." Hearing this statement by the Palestinian sages, the Babylonian Rav Nachman said to Rabbi Yitzchak, "Was it then for nothing that they mourned Jacob and the embalmers embalmed him and the grave-diggers buried him?" That is to say, how can one possibly assert that Jacob did not die, when the entire process of his burial is recorded in Genesis? Rabbi Yitzchak replied that he was in fact explicating a verse in Jeremiah, "And you, fear not, My servant Jacob, says the Lord, nor be dismayed, O Israel, for see, I save you from afar, and your seed from the land of their captivity" (Jer. 30:10). This verse, he said, was intended to establish an analogical relationship, for just as Jacob's descendants were alive, so had Jacob himself remained alive.
We will try to go more deeply into the startling statement that "Jacob our father did not die," making use of three different approaches to Aggada (homiletic passages in Rabbinic literature): the rational, the mystical and the psychodynamic.
1. "Rational" Exegesis
Although Rambam (Maimonides) does not deal directly with Rabbi Yitzchak's remark, he sets out in his preface to the tenth chapter of the Mishnah of Sanhedrin, which begins with the words "All Israel have a share [chelek] in the World To Come") what he considers the correct strategy for explicating Aggada. For this purpose, he divides the Jews of his day into three groups or "sects." The first sect--a very large one--consisted of those who took literally anything said by the Sages and would not accept any hidden, allegorical explanations, even where a literal interpretation ran counter to common sense. According to this approach, if the Aggada stated that Jacob did not die, these people believed that he did not die, precisely as it stated. Rambam altogether rejects this approach to Aggada, on the basis of the rational Aristotelian principle whereby one should not accept things that cannot possibly be. A literal understanding of the statement that "Jacob did not die" physically impossible, and therefore it ought not to be believed.
The second sect, also very numerous, consisted mainly of doctors and astrologers--or what Rambam sarcastically calls "people claiming medical knowledge or who dream about the decrees of the stars." They assumed that anything said by the Sages was intended literally, and therefore whenever something in the Aggada contradicted their rational views they treated it contemptuously as a joke and considered the Sages "simpletons, ignoramuses" while they themselves "are wiser than the Sages and have a clearer intellect." On this approach, the statement that "Jacob did not die" is pure foolishness. But although Rambam does not reject the rationalist stance of this group, he makes a bitter attack upon any exegetical approach which denies to the Aggada a hidden rationality. Contempt for what the Sages say leads to rejection of their authority, and the end result will be that the Torah itself will seem absurd and ridiculous.
The third sect, so small that it could hardly be called a sect at all, comprised those who were fully aware of the greatness of the Sages and the value of their conceptions. What the Sages said was intended to teach profound truths. None of their remarks was meaningless, but they had two levels, "overt" and "hidden," and any assertion that appeared to be impossible was in fact intended as a parable. This represents Rambam's own approach to Aggada. He stresses that Aggada contains a hidden (allegorical) dimension in addition to its overt (literal) sense, and wherever a literal intepretation contradicts rational thinking we are required to seek an allegorical explanation.
With regard to our particular problem, Rabbi Yitzchak's statement that "Jacob our father did not die," if taken literally, is impossible on a rationalist approach. In Rambam's exegetical strategy, therefore, it is not to be taken literally (as the first sect would), nor is it to be dismissed as absurd nonsense (the second sect), but it must be treated in allegorical terms. For example, while on the level of physical reality Jacob did of course die, from the point of view of human consciousness he did not, but lives eternally in the collective memory of the Jewish people. As long as someone is remembered--is not wiped out of one's heart--that person can metaphorically be said to be still alive and indeed immortal.
2. "Mystical" or Kabbalist Exegesis
Ramban (Nachmanides) writes as follows: "Rashi points out that the word death is not applied to Jacob, and that our Sages said that he did not die ... and the point of this Midrash is that the souls of the righteous are bound up in the bond of life, and Jacob's soul will ... put on a second garment that will not be taken off...".
It must be understood that Ramban's commentary on the Torah operates on four levels: the literal sense (peshat)(=sensus literalis), moral teaching, (sensus moralis), allusions to the future (sensus typicus) and mystical interpretation (sensus mysticus). The last of these is the approach he adopts to the statement that "Jacob our father did not die"; and what he says about it is deliberately obscured, for the reason that, in terms of the sociology of knowledge, he regarded mysticism as a closed system. Those parts of his commentary that are written on the mystical level are therefore couched in a consciously esoteric style, and without the help of his pupils and their successors we should hardly be able to decipher them at all.
The axis common to various members of Ramban's school of mystical thought such as Rabbi Yitzchak of Acre, Rabbi Yehoshua ibn Shuib and Rabbi Meir Avisahula was the view that death is (among other things) a transition from one body to another. The ordinary physical body in which we live, is (in the standard medieval view) made up of four elements which together form the material world: earth, water, air and fire. But there is also a fifth element, aether, from which the heavenly world is built, and this provides a kind of transition stage for matter--matter refined and purified, matter that has become eternal and is not subject to processes of formation and destruction. (See E. Grant, Physical Science in the Middle Ages, London, 1986, pp. 36-59.) Death is not complete annihilation but a transition undergone by the soul from a body made up of the four earthly elements to an eternal body composed of aether, which is known as "the astral body." Thus that "Jacob our father did not die" is interpreted in mystical terms by the school of Ramban as meaning that Jacob's soul deserted his earthly body, the body made up of the four earthly elements, and dressed itself in an eternal body, the astral body. In this way Ramban softens down Rabbi Yitzchak's statement, understanding it not as a total denial of physical death but as a conception of death as a transition from an ephemeral body to a more "refined" and eternal body.
3. "Psychodynamic" Exegesis
In order to understand the emotional systems underlying Rabbi Yitzchak's statement, we can make use of the psychodynamic approach, according to which the assertion that Jacob did not die represents a specific sort of defense mechanism--that of denial.
"Defense mechanism" is the name applied in psychodynamic literature to processes or behaviors whose motives areunconscious and which are adopted, without deliberate purpose but in an ongoing manner, in order to protect the self, or the ego, from something that causes anxiety. For the most part, defense mechanisms involve, to a greater or lesser degree, a distortion of reality. In repression, for example, the best known such mechanism, unwelcome psychic material is simply not allowed to enter consciousness. Denial, as its name implies, is a defense mechanism whereby the existence of an unpleasant reality is denied. The familiar "It won't happen to me" approach is a classic example of denial, and so is the feeling sometimes aroused by a traumatic event that "This isn't really happening, it's only a dream, soon I will wake up."
This last example takes us straight to situations involving loss. Every loss, even if it is only a material loss, and all the more the loss of a beloved person, creates stress. When we love someone or something, the beloved object becomes part of ourselves. This is not merely a pleasing metaphor but a direct statement of psychological reality: a beloved individual is absorbed into our perception of ourselves, to a greater or lesser extent. Our self-perception is therefore threatened by a situation of loss, when the beloved is taken away from us. Being bereft can express itself over a wide range of situations, from being unable to find our favorite pen since the day before yesterday ("It isn't lost, it's somewhere in the house, it's going to turn up"), through situations of involving separation, to bereavement. When we deny the loss, we prevent an emotional bite from being taken out of our self, and the threat diminishes. This is precisely the function of a defense mechanism, to protect the self against threats, even at the cost of distorting reality.
Denial mechanisms can help us to understand Rabbi Yitzchak's position, a position which is not uncommon in cases of serious loss, when the automatic first reaction is very often one of denial: "It hasn't really happened." The statement that "Jacob our father did not die" can be understood as a denial mechanism of exactly this type. It is a commentator's emotional response to a loss that is hard to digest, the death of Jacob. Denial helps one to overcome the threatening implications of this reality, although at the high price of distorting it.
To sum up, we have looked at three possible approaches to Rabbi Yitzchak's questionable statement: the rational approach, which offers an allegorical interpretation, the mystical approach, which understands it in a "realistic" (if softened down) manner, and the psychodynamic, which sees it as a defense mechanism. This multiplicity of approaches throws into relief the fact that an Aggadic text contains many meanings and may be understood on many levels.
Let me conclude these remarks with a verse from Deuteronomy: "And you who cleave to the Lord your God are alive, all of you, today" (Deut. 4:4).
Translated by Dr. Phyllis Hackett