A life well-lived

‘And Jacob Lived’ are the first words of this week’s Torah reading[i]. It would appear to be somewhat of a misnomer given that the Biblical text describes the last days and interment of our Patriarch Jacob. Nevertheless, it is consistent with our tradition not to glorify death and, instead, celebrate life.

As the Talmud[ii] notes, with respect to saintly individuals generally, even after they pass on they are referred to as living. In essence, beyond their immortal soul[iii], they also live on through their teachings that touch people with their message[iv]. This is in striking contrast to the view expressed in Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar, where Marc Antony states that they came to bury Caesar, not to praise him and the evil that men do lives after them; but the good is often interred with their bones[v]. Indeed, as the Talmud[vi] declares we do not make elaborate gravestones for the righteous reciting their accomplishments[vii], because their good deeds and teachings[viii] are their memorial.

The Talmud[ix] reinforces this notion in the case of Jacob and proclaims he never died. Abarbanel[x] explains this goes beyond his life lessons being immortalized like other saints. Jacob’s very name is also perpetuated, because his progeny continue to exist and bear his name, as the children of Israel[xi]. What is it, though, about Jacob’s life that is so endearing? After all, as Jacob related to Pharaoh, his life was not easy and, because of the troubles, misfortunes and tragedies he suffered, he appeared older than his actual age[xii].

The Midrash[xiii] dramatically evokes his plight by using a verse from Job[xiv] to allude to his struggles. It describes how he was not tranquil because of Esau, neither did he enjoy quietude because of Laban, nor did he have rest because of Dinah and trouble came in the form of what occurred to Joseph. Yet, he didn’t let these otherwise overwhelming challenges and tragedies defeat him. He had an extraordinary ability to cope; but this was only one aspect of his multifaceted personality.

Jacob did not begin life as a self-assured world-beater, able to take on all comers. He was the spiritual son; quiet and cerebral, who spent his time at home or in school studying[xv], instead of partying and going out on the town. He was, however, handsome[xvi] and strong, both mentally and physically. He was able to press weights[xvii] and wrestle[xviii] when the need arose. He rose to life’s challenges and overcome them. In the process, he managed to receive the blessings for both material and spiritual success from his father Isaac[xix]. He went on to combine Torah scholarship and a worldly occupation[xx] and succeeded magnificently at both. He accomplished this under varied circumstances and in a variety of environments, all without the safety net or benefit of parental protection or influence.

He was a self-made man, who succeeded against all the odds. He left the wealthy household, in which he was raised, at his mother’s urging, to escape Esau’s[xxi] wrath and recriminations. Jacob started his new life with hardly even the clothes on his back. It is reported[xxii] that Esau, sent his son Eliphaz, to kill Jacob. Instead of committing homicide, Eliphaz took all of Jacob’s wealth, thereby rendering him destitute and likened to a dead person, according to the Talmud[xxiii]. Jacob also managed to study for a number of years at the Academy of Shem V’Ever[xxiv], before his encounter with Laban. He then worked for Laban, who sought at every turn to rob him of any individual success[xxv]. Jacob surmounted all of these obstacles and triumphed.

His life after escaping Laban’s clutches and settling in Israel, the land of his ancestors, was not idyllic[xxvi]. He was beset by a series of tragedies. There was the death in childbirth of his beloved wife Rachel[xxvii] at age thirty-six[xxviii]. He had married Rachel and Leah, the twin daughters[xxix] of Laban, when they were twenty-two years of age[xxx]. After that, there was the awful incident involving his daughter Dinah[xxxi]. It wasn’t so long afterwards that Leah passed away, just before the sale of Joseph, when she was forty-five[xxxii]. Then, there was the apparent loss of Joseph, eldest son of his beloved Rachel and the apple of his eye, which was devastating and nearly overwhelming[xxxiii]. In less than a decade, he had lost both his first and second wife and, it appeared, his son Joseph, as well.

Thereafter a fierce famine enveloped Egypt and Israel[xxxiv]. It was awful, but it also enabled Joseph to reconnect first with his brothers and then his father Jacob. The reunion was glorious, despite having to move yet again, this time from Israel to Egypt.

Instead of being crushed by his life experiences, Jacob was transformed by them into the extraordinary person he became[xxxv]. As the Midrash[xxxvi] notes, he was the choicest of the Patriarchs. Nevertheless, despite all of G-d’s assurances of security, Jacob still was never comfortable resting on his laurels, because he never felt himself fully worthy. He was concerned about vulnerability because of some sin[xxxvii] he might have committed; after all, no one was perfect. Thus, it was most gratifying that after all the turmoil of his life, his last seventeen years in Egypt were good and tranquil by comparison[xxxviii]. Besides G-d’s grace, this was due in no small measure to the care Joseph took to assure he was happy[xxxix].

As Jacob approached the end of his physical existence, he asked to be buried in Israel in the Cave of the Patriarchs, in the field of Machpelah, which was purchased by Abraham. It is where his father Isaac and mother Rebecca, grandfather Abraham and grandmother Sara and his first wife Leah, were all buried[xl].

Jacob also felt the need to explain to Joseph why he was not asking to be buried next to Rachel, Joseph’s mother. It was an extremely sensitive conversation as reported in the Midrash[xli]. Jacob had an overriding concern that took precedence over his desire to be buried with Rachel[xlii]. There was also the continuing need for Rachel’s grave to be located outside of the Machpelah cave, as noted below. Most poignant, though, was their achieving a united perspective on the matter and the values they shared, including about what was truly important in life[xliii].

Jacob’s sensitivity in anticipating and responding to a potential problem is commendable and so was Joseph’s unselfish sign-on. It speaks to the very nature of how the life lessons of an individual, no longer in this world physically, are transmitted to the generations. Legacies that are mired in complications and conflicts are prone to misunderstandings and distortions. They often cause unintended harm, despite good intentions. A person can straighten things out while he or she is alive; after passing on, there is no longer any ability to explain, personally. The pristine message of good deeds and teachings, however, is a meaningful and sustainable legacy that can survive the test of time.

Rachel’s life was also very challenging. She suffered profound disappointments, despite being a beautiful[xliv], saintly and take-charge person of action. She did so many good deeds in her lifetime, even when their were not in her own self-interest. Thus, when Laban acted to deceive Jacob, by substituting her twin older sister, Leah, as Jacob’s bride, in her place, she protected her sister from shame. She did this by sharing with her the secret code she had developed with Jacob[xlv]. It also appears she never revealed the subterfuge to Leah, so as to preserve her sister’s dignity and self-respect[xlvi]. Indeed, in the confrontation about the Dudaim flowers, when Leah chastised Rachel for stealing her husband’s affections, she didn’t retort, au contraire, that it was Leah who was the interloper. Instead, Rachel suffered in silence.

It was also Rachel, who with cleared eye perspective and resoluteness, first affirmatively answered Jacob’s call to leave Laban[xlvii]. She recognized it was good for the family to do so. Beyond that, she was the one who took the additional precaution of securing her father Laban’s ancient technology, known as the Teraphim[xlviii]. It functioned like a GPS tracking device, able to locate their position. Taking it frustrated Laban’s ability readily to intercept them, as they made their escape from his clutches. She may ultimately have paid for this perilous escapade to protect her family with her premature demise[xlix].

Perhaps, it was her unselfish devotion to her family that inspired the widely accepted appellation of Rachel Immenu (Rachel our mother). This even though it was Leah who gave birth to a majority of the children, including Judah, the progenitor of most of the Jews in existence today.

It is also interesting to note that while Rachel was her husband Jacob’s first love and the object of his affection, she yearned to be a mother. Leah, on the other hand, was the mother of most of Jacob’s children, but desired to be his most beloved wife. Each was rewarded with their most fervent desires. Hence, Rachel is not buried next to Jacob and is known as our mother and Leah is buried next to her husband Jacob[l].

She had one final mission to protect the children of Israel, which helps explain why she was not buried in Hebron. As Jacob reported to Joseph, Rachel was buried on the road to Beit Lechem in order to fulfill this critically important function[li]. Her gravesite had to be there[lii], when the children of Israel passed by on their way into the Babylonian exile, forced upon them by Nebuchadnezzar[liii]. As a result, Rachel prayed for her children[liv] and, by extension, we too bear her name, in the sense that she is referred to as our mother[lv]. It is her prayer that G-d accepted[lvi] and which engendered divine providence to enable the return of the Jewish exiles from Babylon to Israel.

These tales of Rachel and of Jacob do not glorify their passing away; they celebrate their lives. It is the good they each did during their lives that enabled them to live on. We can and should learn much from the ways they conducted themselves and be inspired to emulate the good deeds they performed. Through our good actions, as their spiritual successors, we are ennobled and they are immortalized. We can also learn important lessons from their errors, as well. The Torah is brutal in its depiction of mistakes, like Jacob’s misjudgment in publicly displaying his favor for Joseph over his other children. It caused burning jealousy and precipitated so much harm[lvii]. We are all human and no one is perfect. We can learn not only what to do, but also what not to do.

Jacob was a consummate scholar, successful businessman and family man. He was the complete package[lviii], a wise and self-sufficient individualist, able to balance the spiritual and material. He managed to build a family and life and become the progenitor of a nation that not only endures; it flourishes after all these millennia. He accomplished this despite encountering all manner of adversity and challenges, the travails of moving many times, making some mistakes and suffering debilitating family issues. His ability to cope with and overcome life’s challenges is an enduring paradigm for the ages.

We too can transcend our character traits, origins, education, upbringing and predispositions and transform ourselves into the best versions of ourselves. We can meet the challenges life throws at us, by embracing our identity as the children of our Patriarch Israel and Rachel Immenu. We can also celebrate life and honor their memory, as well as, those of all our ancestors, who sacrificed so much for us to be here, by unselfishly doing good deeds and helping others.

This Sabbath, we also conclude the reading the Book of Genesis. We fervently recite the words ‘Chazak Chazak V’Nitchazek’ (Be Strong, Be Strong and We Will All Be Strengthened). The Talmud[lix] notes that four things need strengthening. Two are spiritual, to wit: Torah study and prayer. The other two require action in the physical realm and they are the performance of good deeds to help one another and successfully pursuing a worldly profession. Jacob’s led a life, modeled on integrating all of these virtues. May we emulate his success and enjoy a well-lived life, in happiness, peace and prosperity. Am Yisroel Chai.


[i] Parshat Vayechi, beginning at Genesis 47:28.

[ii] BT Brachot 18a.

[iii] See Maharsha commentary on BT Ta’anit 5b.

[iv] BT Yevamot 97a and JT Brachot 2:1 (page 13a at Mechon Mamre) and Shekalim 2:5 (page 11a at Mechon Mamre).

[v] Act III, scene 2.

[vi] JT Shekalim 2:5 (page 11a at Mechon Mamre). See also Maimonides, Mishne Torah, Mourning 4:4.

[vii] See also Genesis Rabbah *2:10 and Etz Yosef commentary thereon.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] BT Ta’anit 5b.

[x] In his commentary on Vayechi, Breishit 49.

[xi] The name G-d gave Jacob (Genesis 32:29 and 35:10).

[xii] See Genesis 47:9 and Sforno commentary thereon. See also HaKtav VeHaKabbalah commentary on the verse, which notes that Jacob had few years of life without suffering and the joyous times were few and far between.

[xiii] Genesis Rabbah 84:1.

[xiv] Job 3:26.

[xv] See Genesis 25:27 and Onkelos, Targum Yonatan, Chizkuni, HaKtav VeHaKabbalah, Rabbeinu Bachya and Radak commentaries thereon.

[xvi] BT Bava Metzia 84a and see also Rashi commentary on BT Chullin 91b.

[xvii] Genesis 29:10.

[xviii] Genesis 32:24-26.

[xix] See both Genesis 27:28-9 and 28:3-4.

[xx] See Avot 2:2 and BT Kiddushin 29a.

[xxi] Genesis 27:42-43.

[xxii] See Rashi commentary on Genesis 29:11.

[xxiii] See BT Nedarim 64b.

[xxiv] An academy of higher learning established by Noah’ son Shem and his son, Ever. As reported in the BT Megillah 17a, Jacob studied there for 14 years prior to his traveling to the land of his ancestors and his encounter with his mother’s brother, Lavan. See also Rashi commentary on Genesis 25:27, as well as, Genesis Rabbah, Chapter 63, Paragraph 10.

[xxv] Genesis 31:35-41.

[xxvi] See Genesis Rabbah 84:1; Etz Yosef commentary on Genesis Rabbah 84:3; Rashi commentary on Genesis 37:2; and Shelah, Torah Shebichtav, Vayeshev, Miketz, Vayigash, Torah Ohr 131.

[xxvii] Genesis 35:17-19.

[xxviii] Seder Olam Rabbah 2.

[xxix] Ibid.

[xxx] Ibid and Vilna Gaon’s (Gra) commentary thereon (2:2:8).

[xxxi] Genesis, Chapter 34.

[xxxii] Seder Olam Rabbah 2 and Vilna Gaon’s (Gra) commentary thereon (2:2:9).

[xxxiii] Genesis 37:32-35.

[xxxiv] Genesis, Chapters 41-47.

[xxxv] See Maharal’s Netivot Olam, Netiv Hayisurin 1.

[xxxvi] Genesis Rabbah 76:1.

[xxxvii] Ibid and See Etz Yosef commentary thereon.

[xxxviii] See Chizkuni, Malbim and Haemek Davar commentaries on Genesis 47:28

[xxxix] Ibid, Chizkuni and see also Radak commentary on the verse.

[xl] Genesis 49:29-33. He had also asked Joseph to swear he would not bury him in Egypt, but rather would inter him in the ancestral burial site in Israel (Genesis 47:29-31). The description given to the rest of the brothers is much more detailed, as noted above.

[xli] See Pesikta Rabbati 3 and Genesis Rabbah 82:10.

[xlii] See Nachmanides commentary on Genesis 48:7. Jacob married two sisters at a time when it was permitted to do so. Indeed, his honoring of his commitment to marry Rachel, after being duped by Laban into marrying Leah, was admirable. Nevertheless, ultimately, the Torah would prohibit marrying sisters. Preserving everyone’s dignity in death was the priority and this was accomplished by burying Rachel separately. Burying everyone together would have provided a trigger for sordid gossip and jest for time immemorial. The wisdom and propriety of the expedient decision has stood the test of time.

[xliii] It should be noted that Joseph doesn’t ask to be buried in the Machpelah cave. He only asks to be buried in Israel. See Genesis 50:25 and Genesis Rabbah 100:11, which notes this was similarly the case with his brothers.

[xliv] Genesis 29:17.

[xlv] See BT Megillah 13b, as well as, Tractates Kallah Rabbati 3:18 and Derech Eretz Zuta 1:10.

[xlvi] Although, according to Genesis Rabbah 70:19, Leah did know, because she and Jacob had a confrontation on the subject, the next morning.

[xlvii] Genesis 31:14.

[xlviii] Genesis 31:19.

[xlix] See Genesis 31:32 and Genesis Rabbah 74:4&9, as well as, Ecclesiastes Rabbah 10:5, Pirke D’Rabbi Eliezer 36:15 and Midrash Aggadah on Genesis 31:32.

[l] Rabbi Efrem Goldberg made this insightful observation in one of his wonderful Parsha Shiurim at the Boca Raton Synagogue attended by the author and available online at yutorah.org.

[li] See Genesis Rabbah 82:10, Rabbeinu Bachya commentary on Genesis 48:7 and the Maharal’s Netzach Yisrael 2:9

[lii] Rashi, in his commentary on Genesis 48:7, explains that G-d commanded Jacob to bury Rachel at this particular site, so that she could be there to pray for the children of Israel going into exile, as described above. Chizkuni, in his commentary on Genesis 48:7, provides another explanation. He offers that title to the Machpelah Cave was still in dispute at the time with Esau. However, this does not explain why Jacob did not transfer Rachel’s remains to the Machpelah, after the matter was resolved, when Jacob was buried there. HaKtav VeHaKabbalah suggests that Rachel’s burial site made sense because it was located at the intersection of the portions of the land of Israel allocated to the Tribes of Binyamin and Ephraim, her progeny.

[liii] See Yalkut Shimoni on Torah, Remez 136, Midrash Aggadah, Genesis 35:19 and Malbim commentary on Genesis 35:20.

[liv] Jeremiah 31:15-17 and see Genesis Rabbah 82:10, as well as, Eicha Rabbah, Petichta 24.

[lv] See Genesis Rabbah 82:10.

[lvi] See Rashi commentary on Jeremiah 31:15.

[lvii] See Genesis 37:3 and Midrash Aggadah thereon. See also Pirke D’Rabbi Eliezar 38:9, Midrash Mishle 1:9, Shir HaShirim Rabbah 8:6 and Midrash Tanchuma (Buber), Vayeshev 19:3.

[lviii] Genesis 25:27 describes Jacob as an ‘Ish Tam’. The term ‘Tam’ has been variously defined, by commentators on the verse, as complete or perfect (HaKtav VeHaKabbalah); genuine and straight forward (Rabbeinu Bachya and Haemek Davar); and unswerving probity (Kli Yakar).

[lix] BT Brachot 32b. See also II Samuel 10:12 and Malbim, Metzudat David and Ralbag commentaries thereon.

About the Author
Leonard Grunstein, a retired attorney and banker, founded and served as Chairman of Metropolitan National Bank and then Israel Discount Bank of NY. He also founded Project Ezrah and serves on the Board of Revel at Yeshiva University and the AIPAC National Council. He has published articles in the Banking Law Journal, Real Estate Finance Journal and other fine publications.
Related Topics
Related Posts