Jacob’s story takes up the lion’s share of the Book of Genesis, beginning with his birth, described in Parashat Toldot, which was read over a month ago, and ending with this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Vayechi, describing his death. Whereas his brother Esau is the one born with personality and character, Jacob lacks any unique traits, seeking always to catch up with him. As it is written, “And the first came forth ruddy, all over like a hairy mantle” (Genesis 25:25), whereas, by contrast, when his younger brother, Jacob, is born, he holds onto Esau’s heel (Gen. 25:26).
The story of Jacob’s personal maturation is a kind of reenactment of his holding onto Esau’s heel. Jacob wears goat skins to pass for his hairy brother, serves their father Isaac delicacies that Esau was supposed to bring and presents himself to Isaac as Esau. The deception works: Jacob “becomes” Esau, in Isaac’s much weakened eyes, and even receives his blessing, whereupon Jacob sets out on his new path in life.
However, his desire to capture and embody the essence of Esau is not just the reason why Jacob sets out; it becomes a basic element in his personality. Esau is “a cunning hunter, a man of the field” (Gen. 25:27). When he returns home and Jacob seeks to purchase his birthright from him ge, Esau says, “Behold, I am at the point to die; and what profit shall the birthright do to me?” (Gen. 25:32). Esau constantly lives on the brink of death (like his father Isaac, who never really got over the episode of almost becoming a human sacrifice), and he relinquishes his birthright because he sees no point in making any plans for the future.
By contrast, Jacob desires the birthright, desires what is beyond the horizon and what is apparently irrelevant to someone who frequently faces existential danger. Jacob not only desires what is beyond the horizon, he attains what he wants and, in the best tradition of the Abrahamic clan, is chosen over Esau. Looking to the future, Jacob plans and prepares; his life exists on a longer and broader continuum than Esau’s, whose life is constantly threatened. For Jacob, death is distant, somewhere beyond the horizon.
In Parshat Vayeshev, Genesis 37, Jacob feels he has finally reached the stage in which he can lead a tranquil life, but suddenly a nerve-racking drama surfaces that doesn’t conclude until this week’s reading, 10 chapters later. Commenting on Genesis 37:1 (“And Jacob dwelt in the land of his father’s sojournings, in the land of Canaan”), Rashi writes: “Jacob wanted to settle down to a peaceful existence when a new episode erupts, in which anger over his son Joseph’s behavior leads the brothers to sell him into slavery.” Now, like Esau, Jacob is at the brink of death: “And Jacob rent his garments, and put sackcloth upon his loins, and mourned for his son many days. And all his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted; and he said: ‘Nay, but I will go down to the grave to my son mourning.’ And his father wept for him” (Gen. 37:34-35).
From the moment he loses Joseph, Jacob feels he is facing his own imminent demise. He cannot be comforted, and declares that he himself will die while still mourning. This feeling of Jacob’s is not, however, tied just to the possibility of Joseph dying, because the father feels the same thing when learns that his son is alive: “And Israel said: ‘It is enough; Joseph my son is yet alive; I will go and see him before I die’” (Gen. 45:28). When he is reunited with Joseph, Jacob says to him: “Now let me die, since I have seen thy face, that thou art yet alive” (Gen. 46:30).
Jacob thought Joseph had been killed and therefore considered himself also to be dead; although he hears that his son is really still alive, Jacob does not really revive. On the contrary: Jacob says he can really die now, after the first time he died, when his sons presented him with Joseph’s bloodstained robe. Jacob seeks to delimit his grief and sorrow, and subsequently, when his sorrow is momentarily turned to joy (on seeing that Joseph is alive), he also seeks to restrain his happiness: “Now let me die, since I have seen thy face.” Jacob simply wants to die.
Finally, in this week’s portion, “the time drew near that Israel must die “ (Gen. 47:29). As seen in the preceding 10 chapters in Genesis, Jacob’s days have been directed toward this very moment. Now he apparently has nothing left to aspire to and can die in peace. But still, Jacob stops and makes his son swear a solemn oath: “and he called his son Joseph, and said unto him: ‘If now I have found favor in thy sight, put, I pray thee, thy hand under my thigh, and deal kindly and truly with me; bury me not, I pray thee, in Egypt. But when I sleep with my fathers, thou shalt carry me out of Egypt, and bury me in their burying-place’” (Gen. 47:29-30).
This reflects a change of heart, a stirring of the soul that is in total contrast to what has happened previously. Here, Jacob is not content to just die, but tries again to grab hold of something that is beyond the horizon, something he has not yet attained. In this connection, Midrash Tanhuma asks: “Why did the patriarchs demand to be buried in the Land of Israel? Why did they so cherish the idea of being buried there? Rabbi Elazar says, ‘There’s something to it.’ Rabbi Hanania says, ‘There’s something to it.’ Rabbi Joshua, son of Levi, says, ‘There’s something to it.’”
The rhetorical power of this midrash lies in the thrice-repeated, rhythmic and cryptic declaration, “They had a very good reason,” and in the answer suddenly offered: “What was that very good reason? It is written, ‘I shall walk before the Lord in the lands of the living’ (Psalms 116:9)” (Midrash Tanhuma: Vayechi: 3).
One of the darkest psalms, Psalm 116, presents the monologue of someone who was encompassed by the “cords of death” in its third verse, who has been bitterly disappointed by others and who appeals several verses later to God to provide shelter for a tormented soul in a metaphysical reality: “For thou hast delivered my soul from death, mine eyes from tears, and my feet from stumbling. I shall walk before the Lord in the lands of the living.” In the Book of Psalms, those lands are a symbolic place where the hero of the psalm can walk before God with confidence, free of the “cords of death” − that is, without pain and sorrow. The plea in Psalm 116, to be rescued from the land of reality and be transported to a symbolic land, is “translated” in the above midrash into the rescue of Jacob’s body from exile and its transfer to the Land of Israel.
The three scholars say the patriarchs had a very good reason for desiring to be buried in the Land of Israel, which serves as both a so-called land of reality (as opposed to exile) and as a symbolic locale. The Land of Israel’s symbolic status imbues it with a different character: Its otherness, foreign nature and remoteness enable it to be interpreted as just such a symbolic land, as one of the “lands of the living.”
Born holding his brother’s heel, Jacob now seeks to go beyond the limits of his own self. Throughout most of his life, he did not aspire to anything; he just wanted to stop living. His demand of Joseph that he transfer his bones for burial in the Land of Israel is the closing of a circle − a circle that began with the moment of Jacob’s birth. Jacob dies again holding onto a heel; he seeks to go beyond his own place, to go beyond the given moment, to reach the “lands of living” that are beyond death.
The respective moments of death of Abraham and Isaac are depicted through three terms: vayigva (“he expired”), vayamot (“he died”) and “vayei’assef el amav” (“he was gathered to his people) (Gen. 25:8, 35:29). By contrast, in the depiction of Jacob’s death (Gen. 49:33), “vayamot” does not appear, which prompts Rabbi Isaac, citing Rabbi Yohanan, to declare: “Our patriarch Jacob did not die” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Taanit, p. 5b).
One is invited to study this point further.