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The Truth is in the Punchline

Parshat Vayehi, almost in its entirety, deals with Yaakov’s death. When his time comes, after he has finished blessing his sons, the progenitors of the tribes, the Torah uses these words to describe his final moments:

And Yaakov finished charging his sons, he gathered his feet up into his bed, and breathed his last breath (vayigva), and was gathered to his kinfolk. (Genesis 49:33)

The fact that the Torah did not use the word “vayamot – and he died” and instead used the more unusual word “vayigva”(see Rashi) inspired a curious mealtime conversation between two sages from the period of the Talmud:

Rav Nahman and Rabbi Yitzhak were sitting at a meal and Rav Nahman said to Rabbi Yitzhak: ‘Let the Master say some words [of Torah].’ He replied: Thus, said Rabbi Yohanan: ‘One should not converse at a meal lest the windpipe acts before the gullet and his life will thereby be endangered [by choking].’ After the meal ended, Rabbi Yitzhak said: Thus, said Rabbi Yohanan: ‘Yaakov our patriarch did not die!’ Rabbi Nahman objected: ‘Was it for nothing that he was bewailed and embalmed and buried?’ Rabbi Yitzhak replied: ‘I derive [what I said] from a scriptural verse, as it is said: As for you, do not fear, My servant Yaakov, said the Lord; and do not be afraid, O Yisrael, for I am about to rescue you from afar and your seed from the land of their captivity. (Jeremiah 30:10) This verse likens Yaakov to his seed [Yisrael]; as his seed will then be alive, so, he, too will be alive….

Sometimes we are remiss in not seeing a joke as a joke, but here it is clear that Rabbi Yitzhak is setting Rav Nahman up for a whopper. Rav Nahman asks his companion for a dvar Torah. Rabbi Yitzhak gives him reason to pause. After all, everybody knows one should not converse during a meal, lest one choke on one’s food. In this case, though, this halakha gives reason to pause, lest one choke on account of the humorous audacity of Rabbi Yitzhak’s dvar Torah. (What do they say in comedy – Timing is everything!) When Rabbi Yitzhak unloads his one liner – “Yaakov our patriarch did not die,” it is a good thing that Rav Nahman had finished eating. Rav Nahman retorts with a reasoned reply to which Rabbi Yitzhak replies: ‘Don’t blame me, I got my line directly from God!’

The plain meaning of the verse from Jeremiah is to give encouragement to the people of Judea that God will remember them and redeem them from exile. The verse uses the names Yaakov and Yisrael interchangeably as symbolic references to the people of Israel. Rabbi Yitzhak, however, uses Yaakov to represent Yaakov the person and Yisrael to represent the people of Israel and hence, he has “proved” that Yaakov is still alive! That this is intended to be taken tongue in cheek is obvious from the conversation at Rabbi Yitzhak’s departure.

When they were about to part, Rav Nahman said: ‘Pray Master, bless me.’ Rabbi Yitzhak said to him: ‘Let me tell you a parable — To what may this be compared? To a man who was journeying in the desert; and he was hungry, weary and thirsty, so he happened upon a tree whose fruit was sweet and its shade pleasant, and a stream of water flowing beneath it; he ate of its fruits, drank of the water, and rested under its shade. When he was about to continue his journey, he said: Tree, O Tree, with what shall I bless you? If I say to you, ‘May thy fruits be sweet’? They are sweet already; that your shade be pleasant? It is already pleasant; that a stream of water may flow beneath you? Behold, a stream of water flows already beneath you; therefore [I will say], ‘May it be [God’s] will that all the shoots taken from you be like unto you. So, too, with you. With what shall I bless you? With [the knowledge of the Torah?] You already possess [knowledge of the Torah]. With riches? You already have riches. With children? You already have children. Hence [I say], ‘May it be [God’s] will that your offspring be like unto you’. (adapted from Taanit 5b-6a)

The exchange between Rav Nahman and Rabbi Yitzhak on Rav Nahman’s departure serves as the punchline for Rabbi Yitzhak’s drasha. How is it that Yaakov continues to live? It is in the perpetuation of the message of his life through his progeny. This is an important lesson for all of us who have “progeny”, whether they be those whom we teach, guide and inspire, or whether they be our children, or our grandchildren. Our lives are intertwined with theirs.

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.
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