Bar-Ilan University

The Faculty of Jewish Studies

The Office of the Campus Rabbi

Daf Parashat Hashavua

(Study Sheet on the Weekly Torah Portion)

Basic Jewish Studies Unit

No. 113

Parshat Vayechi, 1996

Rabbi Yaakov Harlap

Department of Talmud


On the Character of Jacob

In the Portion of Vayechi (Gen. 47:28-50:26), the stormy life of Jacob, the third of the Patriarchs, comes to a close. Jacob's life was strewn with difficulties, beginning with his early struggle with his brother Esau, continuing with his dispute with Laban, and climaxing with the quarrel between Joseph and his other sons, and the selling into slavery of Joseph, the most beloved of his sons. The Midrash (at the beginning of the Portion of Vayeshev--Genesis 37:1) describes Jacob's troubles in terms of a verse from Job:

"I was not tranquil, neither was I at quiet, nor did I have rest, but trouble came" (Job 3:26)--I was not tranquil because of Esau, neither was I at quiet because of Laban, nor did I have rest because of Dina [Gen. 34:1-31], but trouble came--the trouble of Joseph (Genesis Rabba 84:1).

All this web of sorrows did not prevent Jacob from developing spiritually. The Sages saw him as "the choicest of the Patriarchs" (Genesis Rabba 76:1). The Talmud declares that in beauty he resembled Adam, the first man--who was formed directly by the hand of God (Baba Metzia 84a). Elsewhere, commenting on Jacob's dream, in which he saw "angels of God going up and coming down" a ladder (Gen. 28:12), the Talmud explains that the angels ascended to heaven to gaze on the "ideal likeness" kept there, and then descended to earth to look on the "ideal likeness" [i.e., of Jacob; see Rashi ad loc.] (Hullin 91b). This refers to the "likeness of a man" (Ezek. 1:5) in the vision seen by Ezekiel, and the Talmud coments that the figure seen by the angels--that of Jacob--really belonged to the Upper Worlds.

The lengths to which the Sages went in praising Jacob can be seen in the following saying, which is ascribed to Rabbi Yochanan:

Jacob our father did not die.--Someone said to him, "Then was it for nothing that they mourned over him and embalmed him and buried him [Gen. 50:2-15]?" He said to him, "But I am giving the text a homiletic interpretation, for when it says, 'And you, fear not, My servant Jacob, says the Lord, nor be dismayed, O Israel [= Jacob], for see, I save you from afar, and your seed from the land of their captivity' (Jer. 30:10).

The verse draws an analogy between Jacob and his descendants--just as they are alive, so too is he alive." [See Rashi ad loc.: He did not die, but lives eternally; but they embalmed him because they supposed him to be dead.] (Taanit 5b)

This homiletic interpretation arises from the fact that Jacob's death is not actually mentioned in the text. We are told, for example, that Abraham "expired and died" and that "Isaac expired and died," however concerning Jacob the text says only that when he had finished his charge to his sons, "he gathered up his feet to the bed and expired and was gathered to his people" (Gen. 25:8; 35:29; 49:33). Nevertheless the interpretation is astonishing. Did Jacob really not die?1 We will try to clarify the figure of Jacob and to indicate the profundity of Rabbi Yochanan's insight, in the light of remarks made by Maharal (Rabbi Yehuda Löw) from Prague in various places in his works.

In a homiletic passage, the Sages ascribe a divine quality to Jacob:

Rabbi Elazar said, "How do we know that the Holy One, blessed be He, called Jacob 'god' [e-l]? Because we read, `And he set up an altar there and he called it God, the God of Israel' (Gen. 33:20). But if it occurs to you that Jacob called the altar, God, it should have read Jacob called it God. In fact it means He called him [not it]--that is, Jacob--god; and who called him 'god'? The God of Israel." (Megilla 18a)

Following the above homiletic interpretation, Maharal writes:

And since "the mark (literally "seal") of the Holy One is truth" (Shabbat 55) [that is, all 'god's doings are just], and Jacob possessed this "mark"--for of him it is said, "Ascribe truth to Jacob" (Micah 7:20)--He called him "god" ... and one should recognize Jacob's exalted spiritual level, that he was like god down below; for he was at a level of sanctity which meant that he was separated from bodily concerns ... everything holy has this quality of separation from the body, and because of this he was god down below. (Gur Aryeh, Gen. 33:20)

It therefore follows that the figure of Jacob symbolizes total devotion to God. In Maharal's opinion, Jacob attained this spiritual level because of the difficulties which he underwent, and not in spite of them, "for afflictions bring one out of the lowliness of the material world, until one becomes holy" (Netivot Olam, Netiv Hayissurin 1) The sufferings which crashed over him raised him up.

On this view, the hatred felt for him by his brother Esau was in fact Esau's hostility to Jacob's spiritual superiority:

For Jacob was not hated, and his brother would not have wanted to kill him, except that Jacob was superior, that is, his spiritual level separated him from all other human beings ... but because Jacob had a divine quality which separated him from then, and for this reason people wanted to kill him--because of the difference in degree ... for Jacob differed from all other created beings in the glory of his image. As it says in Baba Metzia 84, his beauty resembled that of Adam, who was a Divine image [see Gen. 1:27] (Gur Aryeh,Gen. 7:2).

When Rebekah was pregnant with her twin sons Jacob and Esau, "the children struggled together within her" (Gen. 25:22). On this the Sages remark, "They were dividing among themselves this world and the World To Come." Here is Maharal's explanation:

The Sages have here clarified very great matters, for why did Jacob and Esau struggle together in their mother's womb? Because they were contraries. For Jacob's special quality was that he was removed from material things--this was his essential nature as an individual--while Esau was the opposite. All his concern was solely with this material world, and since the two of them were opposites and they were in a single womb, they could not live together but struggled, according to the law of two contraries, when they come together--there cannot be peace between them. And do not wonder that [the unborn children] had no will or understanding, for this is not a difficulty, for this opposition arose from the power and potentiality each possessed ... for Jacob was devoted to the Power of Holiness ... and from this arose the strife in their mother's womb. (Netzach Yisrael 15).

In other words, Jacob's essential nature was spiritual, separated from material things and necessarily in opposition to them, even unconsciously; and so, even before birth, a conflict took place between the spiritual essence embodied by Jacob and the material essence embodied by Esau--and of course this conflict continued to exist throughout their lives.

This description of Jacob enables us to understand the profound insight of the declaration that "Jacob our father did not die." What it means, in Maharal's view, is that the quality of spirituality and of detachment from materialism symbolized by Jacob has never disappeared, but will continue to be found in his descendants to all eternity: "The meaning is that the vital force of our father Jacob was not a vitality of the flesh and the body, but a vitality by which all Israel was blessed--complete devotion to God" (Gur Aryeh, Gen. 50:33). The people of Israel (the name given to Jacob by God [Gen. 35:10]) has inherited this spiritual quality from Jacob, and it is responsible for the hatred felt by non-Jews towards Jews:

For Israel has enemies who differ from ordinary enemies, who have some specific reason for attacking; its enemies hate it without a reason, and it is specifically Israel which they hate, although it has done nothing to them ... for it is known that Materiality opposes Form, simply because of their own natures, and for this reason there was strife (Gevurot Ha-Shem 5:54).

It would seem from this that Maharal regards hatred for Israel--that is, anti-Semitism--as opposition to Israel on an unconscious level, "without a reason." It is not a response to things done by Israel, or to its behavior, but isrooted in opposition to its essential nature, just as Matter opposes Form and the amorphous rejects perfection.

Of all Jacob's sons, in Maharal's opinion, Joseph was the one who came closest to him in this quality of "Form." He arrives at this view on the basis of the Midrashic comment upon Genesis 37:2: "These are the generations of Jacob; Joseph was seventeen...," which runs as follows: "It should not have read like this [since Joseph was not Jacob's eldest son], but rather These are the generations of Jacob; Reuben... Nevertheless Joseph was mentioned here because everything that happened to the first happened to the second.... Joseph's brothers hated him, and Jacob's brother hated him, Joseph's brothers sought to kill him, and Jacob's brother sought to kill him..." (Genesis Rabba 84:6). Similarly, the Midrash comments on the verse, "And Israel loved Joseph more than all his sons, for he was the son of his old age" (Gen. 37:2), that "the glory of his image resembled his" (Gen. Rabba 84:8; Gur Aryeh, ad loc.). The function of these Midrashim, says Maharal, is to indicate that Jacob and Joseph did not merely resemble each other externally, but had a shared inner nature. And indeed the two were persecuted for the same reason: just as Esau hated Jacob because of his separate nature, so was Joseph divided from his brothers:

And therefore [in his final blessing] Jacob called Joseph "a Nazirite among his brothers" ... and it was a most wonderful thing that his inner image resembled his, for Jacob differed from all other created beings in the glory of his image and in his beauty, which was like that of Adam, who was the Divine image--and Joseph achieved this level also.... These things do not relate to the body; rather, Joseph's wisdom and the glory of his image (which resembled Jacob's) indicate that just as Jacob had a Divine quality which had nothing to do with the body so did he--a Divine quality far removed from the body (Gur Aryeh, Gen. 37:2; see also Hiddushei Aggadot on Baba Batra 3b).

The likeness between Jacob and Joseph led to Jacob's choosing Joseph, out of all his sons, to be the recipient of the blessing which he himself had received from his father Isaac. This is how Maharal explains the verse, "The blessings of your father have prevailed over the blessings of my progenitors, to the furthest bound of the everlasting hills; they shall be on the head of Joseph" (Gen. 49:26), for he says, "Therefore he gave Joseph the blessing of Jacob ... because he was separate from his brothers, he had sufficient merit to receive the blessing of Jacob" (Gur Aryeh, ibid.).

"Jacob our father did not die." Jacob transmitted his spiritual heritage to his son Joseph, and to the generations that succeeded him. His special qualities are planted within the people of Israel up till this very day, and they are the source of its life.


1. Ramban, Rabbenu Bachya and other commentators offer various explanations; see their commentaries ad loc.

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