Jacob never died.
They may have wept over his body for seventy days. They may have carried him back to the land of Canaan and buried him. But make no mistake – he’s alive.
That’s the startling interpretation Rashi gives to the following line, which certainly seems to report Jacob’s death:
When Jacob finished his instructions to his sons, he drew his feet into the bed and, breathing his last, he was gathered to his people. (Genesis 49:33)
וַיְכַל יַעֲקֹב לְצַוֹת אֶת–בָּנָיו, וַיֶּאֱסֹף רַגְלָיו אֶל–הַמִּטָּה; וַיִּגְוַע, וַיֵּאָסֶף אֶל–עַמָּיו.
There he is, on his deathbed. He’s offered his final blessings. He takes a last breath, and… that’s it. He’s gone, isn’t he?
Not so fast. Rashi notices that there’s some unusual language in the verse:
“He ‘Breathed His Last’ and ‘Was Gathered’” – But it never mentions ‘Death.’ So our rabbis said that Our Father Jacob did not die.
ויגוע ויאסף: ומיתה לא נאמרה בו, ואמרו רבותינו ז“ל יעקב אבינו לא מת
He “did not die”? What could that mean? It’s certainly clear, from the narrative that follows, that everyone around him thought he died:
Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead… (Gen. 50:15)
וַיִּרְאוּ אֲחֵי–יוֹסֵף, כִּי–מֵת אֲבִיהֶם
Then we even get the report that he was embalmed and buried! So what is Rashi talking about here? Some kind of zombie? Or a resurrection? Either way, it doesn’t seem like a very Jewish story. We don’t believe in the undead, do we?
And yet, Jacob isn’t the only person mentioned in our parsha who seems to come back from the dead. A chapter earlier, Jacob is telling Joseph about how his wife Rachel died on the way back to the land of Canaan, and he says:
…and I buried her there, on the road to Efrat. (Gen. 48:7)
וָאֶקְבְּרֶהָ שָּׁם בְּדֶרֶךְ אֶפְרָת
Rashi jumps in again, this time imagining how hard it must have been for Joseph to hear that his mother was left on the side of the road, and how Jacob might have justified it to him:
I didn’t even bring her into Bethlehem, into the Land. And I know that you hold it in your heart against me. But know that this burial was done at God’s word, so that she could be a help to her children. When Nebuzaradan one day exiles them, and they pass the road there, Rachel will come forth from her grave, and cry, and beg mercy for them. As it says, “A voice will be heard on high.” (Jeremiah 31:14) And God will answer her: “There is reward for your actions, says the Lord… and the wayward children will return into their borders.” (Jeremiah 15:15)
ולא הולכתיה אפילו לבית לחם להכניסה לארץ, וידעתי שיש בלבך עלי תרעומת, אבל דע לך שעל פי הדבור קברתיה שם שתהא לעזרה לבניה כשיגלה אותם נבוזראדן, והיו עוברים דרך שם, יצאת רחל על קברה ובוכה ומבקשת עליהם רחמים, שנאמר (ירמיה לא יד) קול ברמה נשמע רחל מבכה על בניה וגו‘, והקב“ה משיבה (ירמיה לא טו) יש שכר לפעולתך נאם ה‘ ושבו בנים לגבולם.
Rachel was buried, yes. But one day, legend has it, she will rise from the grave. For she has a mission: to pray for her children in exile. When they pass by, they will hear her voice, and it will be a comfort to them.
So now we have the ghost of Rachel along with zombie Jacob – two lost lovers still wandering the earth.
But at least we know how and why Rachel comes back from the dead. What about Jacob? It’s a mystery. We still don’t know what it means to say that he never died. And if he is alive, what exactly is he up to?
To answer that, we have to go back to the place in the Talmud that Rashi quoted to begin with, to a conversation between two rabbis. And we see that even there, when one of them introduces the idea that Jacob never died, the other is totally shocked. Take a look:
Rabbi Yochanan said, “It was taught: ‘Our father Jacob never died.’”
Rabbi Nachman argued, “But was it for nothing that he was mourned and embalmed?!”
Rabbi Yochanan replied, “I make this assertion from the following passage (in Jeremiah 30:10): ‘Do not fear, my servant Jacob, says the Lord, and be not dismayed, O Israel; for behold, I will save you from afar, and your seed from the land of captivity; and Jacob shall return, and be at rest, and be secure, with none to terrify him.’ Jacob is compared to his children; as they are still living, so is he also. (Taanit 5b)
א“ר יוחנן יעקב אבינו לא מת א“ל וכי בכדי ספדו ספדנייא וחנטו חנטייא וקברו קברייא א“ל מקרא אני דורש שנאמר (ירמיהו ל) ואתה אל תירא עבדי יעקב נאם ה‘ ואל תחת ישראל כי הנני מושיעך מרחוק ואת זרעך מארץ שבים מקיש הוא לזרעו מה זרעו בחיים אף הוא בחיים
Rabbi Nachman is just as puzzled as we were: Jacob never died?! Are you kidding? They mourned him! He was embalmed! Of course he died!
But Rabbi Yochanan’s reply makes it clear that this assertion was never meant literally. So now we have our answer. It was a metaphor: Jacob lives… through his children. Their continuing history is his continuing life. And so their exile is his exile; their return, his return.
Jacob is his children. And that is why he never dies.
But if that is so, then the metaphor also works the other way. It also means that when Rachel comes back from the dead to pray for Jacob’s children, she’s actually praying for Jacob himself. When she cries to God to let the Children of Israel return, she’s also crying over her long lost husband, begging God to bring him back to her. For if Jacob is the embodiment of the People, then Rachel is the voice of the Land.
Notice that in both the story of Jacob never dying and the story of Rachel coming back from the dead, all the proof-texts are taken from the Book of Jeremiah. And Jeremiah is a book about the sorrow of exile.
As Jeremiah is re-read through these rabbinic stories, then, the exile of the Children of Israel is also an exile between two lovers who have never been fully reunited. And so their spirits hover in limbo, praying for their children to return to their beloved homeland. Through the return of the children, somehow, the souls of the Father and Mother will find each other again.
Let us wayward children return into our borders. Let us bring Jacob, who has wandered so long, back home to his beloved.