OUR FATHER JACOB DIDN'T DIE
This is how the Torah describes the death of Jacob:
וַיְכַ֤ל יַעֲקֹב֙ לְצַוֺּ֣ת אֶת־בָּנָ֔יו וַיֶּאֱסֹ֥ף רַגְלָ֖יו אֶל־הַמִּטָּ֑ה וַיִּגְוַ֖ע וַיֵּאָ֥סֶף אֶל־עַמָּֽיו׃
When Jacob finished his instructions to his sons,
he drew his feet into the bed and,
breathing his last, he expired and was gathered to his people.
When Abraham and Isaac die the Torah specifically uses the word: וימת - and he died. Here though, it doesn't.
Rashi picks up on this omission:
וּמִיתָה לֹא נֶאֶמְרָה בוֹ,
וְאָ"רַ יַעֲקֹב אָבִינוּ לֹא מֵת:
ויגוע AND HE EXPIRED —
but the word death is not mentioned here
and our Rabbis therefore said:
“Jacob, our father, is not dead”. (Taanit 5b)
This is what makes the study of the Torah great! On the one hand, clearly the man has died. He has expired. He has been gathered to his kin. They are about to make a big trip back to Canaan to bury his body. Yeah, he's dead. But - cue the Talmudic sing-song! - on the other hand, because the Torah doesn't specifically say he died, we can infer that in actual fact he is, very much, not dead!
In the Princess Bride, Miracle Max, (the most hilarious, obviously Jewish character in all of cinema!) gives us a useful midrash to understand this: he might be mostly dead, but not all dead!
Here's the actual quote:
There's a big difference between mostly dead and all dead.
Mostly dead is slightly alive!
All dead, well, with all dead,
there's usually one thing that you can do...
go through his clothes and look through loose change!
The absence of the actual word death at Jacob's cessation of breathing and pulse, gave rise to the Talmudic teaching cited by Rashi and was, presumably, the basis for Shlomo Carlebach's great Jewish anthem sung at rallies, hakafot, and all simchas:
עם ישראל חי! עוד אבינו חי!
Am Yisrael Hay, Od Avinu Hay!
The people of Israel lives! Our father is still alive!
But what does it mean?
For this question, we have to turn to Nachmanides, Rashi's greatest admirer and harshest critic. He says:
וענין המדרש הזה
כי נפשות הצדיקים
צרורות בצרור החיים
the meaning of this midrash is
that the souls of the righteous
are bound up in the bonds of life.
Life will, one day sadly come to an end for all of us. That's an inescapable reality. The Rabbis of the Talmud of course knew that and so did Rashi. But Judaism provides comfort and wisdom to guide us as we live with that painful reality. Through the personality of Jacob and the account of his death-non-death we learn that when we live a worthy life, a life defined by goodness and righteousness, even in death, our souls will be bound to the lives of others, the bonds of life. We do not totally die.
Thus, while Jacob may be, in the words of Miracle Max, mostly dead, he is still also very much slightly alive! And we could add that our father Jacob is still very much alive to this day in the living, breathing, pulsating, thriving Jewish people. As descendants of Jacob, and all of our matriarchs and patriarchs, we can attest that their lives are very much bound to ours. We live inspired by their faith, their example, their challenges and hardships, their choices, their sacrifices, their devotion, their steadfastness, their struggles, their lives, and their connection to God.
With the death of Jacob, the book of Bereishit soon comes to an end. For us it has been another year defined by the sacred privilege of telling ourselves the founding story of our family from Shabbat to Shabbat. As this story comes to its conclusion, how humbling it is to apprehend that their lives live on in all of us!