Death Approaches for Ya’akov

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Akeydat Yitzhak, Sha’ar Thirty-Two, Second Part

Death Approaches for Ya’akov

Last time, we saw R. Arama urge readers/listeners to put the physical in proper perspective, spoke of the ways our intentions can shape/affect our physical lives. His recognition of the superiority of the immortal soul, and its impact on this-worldly life, brings him to traditions about how some people have conquered death.

Death Isn’t Sad for the Deceased

He wonders why Ta’anit 5b singles out Ya’akov as someone who never died, when Berakhot 18a says, without qualification, the righteous are called alive even after their passing. Two more points about the Gemara bother him: it speaks of Ya’akov instead of Yisrael; and the response in the Gemara wonders how we could say Ya’akov never died, when eulogies were delivered. To R. Arama, it’s an odd complaint, since the Torah itself tells us Yosef and his brothers saw their father had passed. Whatever was meant by “Ya’akov never died,” it already knew there was the appearance of death, so how would eulogies affect it?

I skip a bunch of his ideas about how we earn eternal life and the structure of the soul (in his time, the soul was assumed to have three parts, nefesh, ruah, and neshama, defined variously by various writers). Based on his view of the soul, he thinks Ya’akov Avinu not dying means more than the usual amount of his soul would live on, because he was so righteous. For most people, including the ordinary righteous, the immortal soul captures only one element of the original person, and eulogies mourn the rest.

For Ya’akov, the questioner in Ta’anit understood the Gemara to have said, there was no rest, which should have made eulogies superfluous. They should not have been upset about the cessation of Ya’akov’s physical life if so much of his personality conquered death. R. Arama cites a verse to say they either were incorrect for mourning (as many ignorant people mourn, he says, I think a jab at the people of his time, whom—as we’ve seen—he thinks were too invested in life, therefore mourned death to an inappropriate extent), or that Ya’akov’s family mourned in the sense Moed Katan 25b has it, crying for their loss, not for the person. Ya’akov does refer to himself as about to die, and the verse says his sons saw he had died, because the physical body necessarily dies, even for the righteous, but the rest survived.

The Life Beyond Death

The perspective of death as a loss to the survivors rather than the deceased brings him (eventually) to Sukkah 29a, four sins lead to me’orot lokin, the light-giving heavenly bodies being struck (or dimmed). R. Arama reads it as about reasons a generation will be denied the benefit of the light of their scholars (the ideas of Torah scholars as illuminating the rest of the world builds off of Mishlei 6;23 says, mitzvot are like candles, Torah is light).

He relates the four in Sukkah to four groups identified in Sanhedrin 103a as those who will not merit greeting the Divine Presence, slanderers, liars, letzim and flatterers. Letsim, he says, make hurtful statements, then claim to be joking; like those who raise animals in Israel, the corresponding category in Sukkah, their damage accrues bit by bit, ends up very great.  Flatterers are obsequious to people who should be derided or opposed.

R. Arama thinks the ideas are related, because such people do not deserve to see the “face of the divine,” as Sanhedrin puts it, they also will be denied the light of the me’orot, as Sukkah put it, in his view the illuminating presence of the righteous.

He then points to several Talmudic stories whose plain sense depicts righteous people as living beyond their death. R. Elazar answered questions for eighteen years after his death, says Baba Metzi’a 84b, and Shabbat 152b has an extended story where R. Nahman is taught that those who never had jealousy in their lives are not bound by death.

There are many more such stories, and they—taken literally, as he is doing, a move worth noticing, since he knows how to read allegorically when necessary—support the idea of the limited reach of death, especially regarding the righteous.

Still, the Body Matters

Given how little death seems to affect the righteous, R. Arama needs to explain why Ya’akov would care to extract an oath from Yosef to bury him in Israel, near his ancestors. He clearly cares where his physical remains end up, when we could imagine it would be irrelevant to someone who is not going to die in the usual sense. R. Arama points out the Gemara assumes a continuing connection between the surviving soul and the remnants of the physical host. Shabbat 152b says souls of deceased spend the first year after passing going up and down, from heaven to the grave and back. It’s why Jewish tradition cares about burial, preferably in some kind of a pleasant surroundings. We believe in a soul connected to its body, including after death.

Ya’akov makes Yosef swear to do it immediately, worried any interim interment will linger. He forces Yosef to swear as a bulwark against the king protesting or resisting, a sign Ya’akov thought Par’oh would be bound by an oath, where he might otherwise have refused to let Yosef bury his father where the father asked.

Blessing the Grandsons

The elevation of Ephraim and Menashe to full tribe status assumed the Levi’im would one day be selected, separated from the rest of the nation to serve. [He was not the first to think various prophets were aware of and prepared for futures that had not yet happened; on the other hand, he does not explain how that works with freewill—had the first-born not sinned at the Golden Calf, tradition seems to assume they would have continued as the ones serving in the Mishkan.]

Ya’akov asks to hug his grandsons, the physical closeness a reminder of how much better his life has gone than he had expected—Ya’akov had despaired of seeing Yosef again, and now saw his children. With his father’s good mood, Yosef hoped he would be able to bless the boys (we have seen before how blessing depends on mood), and placed them exactly as he expected the blessing should come, the oldest going towards Ya’akov’s right hand.

Ya’akov “errs,” switching his hands and putting Ephraim’s name first (a good catch by R. Arama, Yosef had reason to know his father had not made a mistake, because he said Ephraim’s name first in the blessing). The blessing addresses three areas, success in service of Gd (the reference to the Gd before Whom his ancestors served), in material matters (the needed support for the first success, referred here as the Gd Who shepherded him throughout his life), and protection from interruptions, illnesses, or other barriers in the way of one’s service of Gd (the angel who redeemed him from all troubles).

Yosef objects because he worried a blessing made in error would not take effect (R. Arama refused to believe Yosef was opposed to Ephraim’s success, as if he favored Menashe), and also cared about protecting Menashe from being unfairly denied what should be his. Ya’akov reassures him he knows what he is doing—so the berakhot will work—and Menasheh isn’t being cheated, Ephraim is being given even more (with a “real” first born, the idea wouldn’t work, because there are defined powers and rights. Where Yosef’s sons are being absorbed into the broader nation, Ephraim is getting a better berakha, yet R. Arama can assume Menashe is getting the full berakha he would have gotten anyway).

For all he spent much of the sha’ar promoting a narrower view of the value of the physical, he ends with an explanation of why the death of the body matters, why the place of burial matters, and how a blessing of physical bounties can be vital to paving the way for a life free to serve Gd to the fullest extent.

About Gidon Rothstein

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