After blessing all his sons and instructing them once more to return his remains to the land of Israel, our forefather Yaakov lays his head upon the bed, and his soul expires. Yet at this poignant moment of closure, the Torah does not use the term we would expect to see – “Vayamot,” ‘and he died.’
Noting the peculiar absence of “Vayamot,” R’ Yitzchak (BT Taanit 5b) reaches the conclusion that Yaakov never died! Perturbed, R’ Nachman retorts: ‘Did the mourners mourn in vain?’ Don’t we see that Yaakov was embalmed, eulogized, and buried later in the parsha? How could it be that he didn’t die? To this, R’ Yitzchak responds: “As long as his descendants live, Yaakov lives on as well.”
This year, the book of Bereishit opened with catastrophe and closes in heartbreak. Twelve weeks ago we read of creation in the face of destruction, and then we read of the receding of the flood of Noach even as our own deluge continued. And here we are reading “Vayechi Yaakov,” ‘and Yaakov lived,’ as death and grief continue to surround us. And not even deaths like that of Yaakov, at a ripe old age, surrounded by family and in the comfort of his bed – but losses that are violent and premature.
Yet Yaakov and our own victims and fallen heroes transcend the finality of death through the legacy they leave behind. The children Yaakov bears, who grow into a full-fledged nation, continue as the torch-bearers for his vision; through them his presence, the presence of Israel, continues to be felt in the world.
No less can be said of those whose loss we mourn today. Their sacrifice in defense of Israel and of world Jewry enables us to celebrate Jewish weddings in the hills of Judea and in the streets of Jerusalem, and for Jewish life to prosper in the land of Israel.
While the gaping wounds caused by their deaths will never truly be healed, the fallen heroes of this war still live!
Especially close to my heart are the 10 OTS alumni and 20 members of our extended OTS family whose lives have been taken since October 7. I imagine them with so many others who have sacrificed on our behalf taking a seat in the Yeshiva shel Maala, the heavenly academy, where we are taught (Pesachim 53b; Bava Metzia 85a) the souls of the righteous of the Jewish community reside. There, they are joined together, plumbing the depths of Torah and the divine mind, perhaps unraveling the mysteries that, to us, remain intractable.
The heavenly yeshiva is not just the beneficiary of angelic interpretations or divine revelation, but of the actions of the new arrivals, whose acts of chesed under fire, heroism on the battlefield, and sacrifice of self for the perpetuation of a larger narrative add to the latitude and longitude of our mesorah.
They have demonstrated to us the ability to work together as a people even when we come from different religious and political perspectives. They have defined for us mesirut nefesh (self-sacrifice) as they fought not to be excused from service but to be at the forefront of this righteous battle. Their love for the land of Israel and willingness to fight for immortal values compelled them to put their lives on hold, ending lives yet to be lived.
The Yeshiva shel Maala and the Yeshivot shel Mata, the heavenly academy and the institutions of Torah study here on earth, are inseparably intertwined. For the legacy, values, and ideals left behind by the souls of the righteous serve as the North Star of the Torah we learn and implement here on earth. They join the dialogue of Rebbe Akiva, of Hillel and Shamai, and Ravina and Rav Ashi.
Even if our loved ones are no longer with us physically in our homes and workplaces, they, like the Tanaim and Amoraim, have shaped our present and will continue to shape our future. They are with us when we reflect upon the beliefs and commitments they have bequeathed to us and charged us to fulfill in the world. It is their ongoing inspiration which we carry with us into action, and in this manner they, like Yaakov, never really leave us.
May their memories be not merely a blessing, but an ongoing inspiration for all of us, channeled from the heavenly academy to our own houses of Torah study, and from there to the world we will continue to build together.