This page presents insights by Rabbi Tuvia Bolton on the weekly Torah portion.
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Parshat Vayechi (5761)
This week’s Torah reading relates the dramatic last moments of Yaakov, the ‘Chosen’ of the fathers, when he blessed his sons and was 'gathered to his people'.
Yaakov was in many aspects, like Adam the first man; a ‘general soul’. In fact the Talmud (b.metzia 84) and the Zohar in several places compares the ‘beauty’ of Yaakov to the beauty of Adam because both were perfect examples of what G-d intended when He created man.
But, in some ways Yaakov was even better; while Adam sinned, brought death into the world and eventually died. The Torah tells us that "Yaakov was perfect" and although he; “Drew his feet into the bed, expired, and was gathered to his people” it does not say, “He died”!
The Talmud (Taanit 5b) explains this omission; “Yaakov Avinu (the patriarch) did not die”….. ‘it just seemed that way’ explains Rashi and Tosefot). “Just as Yaakov’s offspring are alive, so he is alive.”
In other words Yaakov was embalmed, mourned, even buried (Kiriat Arba is called so because Yaakov is one of the four Holy men buried there) but he did not really die.
What does this mean? The Torah is a book of practical 'teaching' (Torah means teaching) what practical use is this to us in our daily lives? Here is a story I hope will illustrate.
Some one hundred years ago, a very distraught woman showed up in the town of Lubavitch in Russia. Religious women usually did not wander about all alone in those days, but this poor woman had made an arduous one-week journey because someone told her that the Lubavitcher Rebbe could help her.
“Is this where Rebbe Shalom DovBer is? I must see him.” She pleaded to one of the Rebbe’s secretaries. “I’ve come from so far. Please, I must see him! Only he can help me.”
But her cries were to no avail; the Rebbe wasn’t receiving. “If you write your request on a paper I promise that I will give it to the Rebbe and the Rebbe will see it, but I can’t promise more than that. I’m sorry" he said apologetically.
With no other choice, the poor woman found a quiet place to sit and wrote her request. Her problem was a tragic one; she was an ‘aguna’; a living widow.
Her husband simply left the house one day and didn't come back. There were rumors that he abandoned Judaism but it was impossible to know and no one even knew where to begin looking for him. Now she had three hungry children to feed and could not remarry without either proving that he died or, if he was still alive, convincing him to write her an official bill of divorce (called ‘Get’).
She was at the end of her wits; she had no money, no husband, no connections or experience in life and now… her last hope, the Rebbe, was vanishing before her eyes. “He probably won’t even read my letter.” She said to herself. But she handed it in and hoped for the best.
Surprisingly the answer was fast in coming.
In less than an hour the secretary stood facing her, held her letter up pointed to the Rebbe's comment written in the margin and read, “The Rebbe says that you should travel to Warsaw.”
At first she was overjoyed! But her smile faded as she realized that there was no more to the message.
“But where in Warsaw? What should I do there?”
“That is all the Rebbe answered,” replied the secretary. “I’m sorry, that's all that is written here.”
She even wrote in another letter asking for some details, but … no answer. When the Chassidim heard the story they took up a collection and gathered up enough money to pay for a round-trip train ticket to Warsaw and room and board for a month. The next morning she was on the train and after another long arduous journey, she was standing bewildered in the Warsaw train station with her old suitcase and no idea where to go or what to do next.
People were rushing by, occasionally someone almost knocked her over, but she just stood there. She had the address of a hotel on a crumpled piece of paper in her hand. She took it out of her pocket but she didn’t want to walk anymore, she was tired, she just wanted to give up.
“The children are in good hands”, she thought to herself. She was alone and confused and she wanted to cry, someone else bumped into her. “Maybe I’ll just go back home,” the thought was still in the corner of her mind when she heard someone say, “Excuse me”. She snapped out of her melancholy and saw standing before her a neatly dressed Jew with a reddish beard. “Excuse me,” he said in Yiddish, “Are you feeling all right? Perhaps I can be of some help? Are you waiting for someone?”
“I’m here because the Lubavitch Rebbe …” and she mechanically repeated her entire story.
“Tell me,” Said the man when she had finished, “what was your husband’s name and how did he look?”
“Ehh, well…” She was still in a semi-daze, “his name was Fival but maybe he changed it. And he was heavyset, walked with a sort of a limp, and he had a thick black beard, but it could be he’s shaved it off, and I think he has a sort of mark on his forehead. It’s been two years, who knows how he looks now or if he's even alive.” She almost began to weep again when he interrupted.
“I think I know where he is. Please follow me. It’s not far from here.” He escorted her out of the station, pointed to a large busy intersection and gave her directions how to go from there to a certain tavern. “I'm sure that your husband is sitting in the back of that bar playing cards and gambling.”
After everything she’d been through she asked no questions. She just nodded to the stranger, thanked him, and began walking according to his directions. And after a half hour she found the place. She took a deep breath and entered the dimly lit bar-room dragging her battered suitcase and feeling terribly out of place.
She made her way through the smoke and noise to the back of the room and stared blankly at the figures sitting there playing cards, waiting for her eyes to adjust to the dark.
Suddenly one of the gamblers turned to her and cried out in shock. “Yaaaa!! Sara!!! How did you get here??!!” She could see clearly now, and the man who was speaking sounded something like her husband, he was thinner with no beard … but it was him!
When she blurted out something about the Rebbe in Lubavitch and a religious Jew in the train station he stood and began swinging back and forth like a mad man, running his fingers through his hair, then waiving his arms and repeating to himself, “I don’t know any Jews, I don’t know any Rebbe!! How could anyone know? How?!!”
He was so affected by it all that he began weeping, and then fell to his knees begging her forgiveness. One thing led to another and just a few days later, he shamefacedly returned home, repented completely of his evil ways and their life together resumed as before.
The next year she traveled again to Lubavitch, but this time with a letter of gratitude. The Rebbe’s secretary arranged that she would stand outside the Rebbe’s door and when the Rebbe would come out, she could give him the letter and perhaps even be able to thank him personally.
She took her place and stood there, holding her letter and waiting nervously, this was the first time she would actually see the Rebbe! Then the big moment arrived, the door opened and the Rebbe emerged!
She took one look at him…went into a swoon, and fainted unconscious on the floor!
When she came to, the doctor was kneeling over her. “You were so exited that you passed out.” He explained, as she began to sit up.
“Was that the Rebbe?” she asked, “Was that him?”
“Why certainly,” the doctor answered, “Why do you ask? Didn’t you know that that was the Rebbe?”
“Because” she looked the doctor in the eyes, “THAT was the man who I saw in Warsaw. He was the one who helped me in the Warsaw train station!!”
Later the Rebbe’s secretary made some calculations and figured out that the day she was in the station was the same day that he had entered the Rebbe’s room and found him sitting motionless, eyes open, oblivious to his surroundings for a long time, as though he was ‘somewhere else’.
Strange as this story is, there are similar ones about the Fourth Rebbe of Chabad, Rebbe Shmuel as well as the Baal Shem Tov and his successor 'the Maggid of Mezeritz' being in 'two places' at once; they actually made appearances in this world years after they died.
Something like "Yaakov Avinu never died".
The explanation for all this and its connection to our daily lives can be found in a book written over 400 years ago called “Avodat HaKodesh” by Rabbi Mair ben Gabbai.
There (Part 2 chapt. 19) he explains that, in addition to our mundane, 'natural' bodies every Jew has a TRUE (but concealed) ETERNAL PHYSICAL body as an inheritance from Adam from before the sin of the tree (Adam was created to live physically forever Gen.2:17).
According to Rabbi Ben Gabbai, when Adam sinned he brought death not only to himself but also to all future generations: He not only defiled his own true undying 'beautiful' body but he also neutralized it so that it was not passed on to his children.
Yaakov redeemed this body.
Yaakov was so dedicated to Truth (It is his attribute; Emet L’Yaakov) that he actually re-activated this true body (in addition to his normal ‘external’ physical one, which is why he seemed to die ‘externally’ but ‘truly’ he lives on) and even passed it on, in a concealed way, to his offspring, (as the Talmud continues, “Just as Yaakov’s seed are alive so he lives”) just as Adam was supposed to have done.
Therefore the Jewish people (called ‘Israel’ after their eternal namesake) will continue to exist forever, and they, and only they, are fitting vessels for the Infinite True Will of G-d; The Torah and its Commandments.
There were, continues Rabbi Ben Gabbai, other Tzadikim after Yaakov that also activated this eternal body. Among them: Moses and King David (both are also described in the Talmud as ‘not dying’), Eliyahu the prophet (his live body went into heaven) Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi (after his death he would come home each Shabbos and make ‘Kiddush’ for his family - Ktuvot 104a) and, interestingly, Moshiach will also do so – (Yalkut Shimoni 367).
That is what it means that Yaakov was a ‘general soul’ and was similar in beauty to Adam; he redeemed this eternal, ‘true’ body that is the real essence of man and passed it on to us.
What does all this mean to us?
This ‘Truth of Yaakov’ that is within each of us, reminds us that the body is much holier and more eternal than even the soul, and that this physical world, not the upper spiritual heavens, is the only place that the true essence of G-d is to be found.
This is the 'secret' of the last of the 13 foundations of Jewish faith; 'The Raising of the Dead'
And when one really contemplates this, he/she is guaranteed to experience a spiritual resurrection; a personal ‘raising of the dead’ in this world … now.
Namely, when we consider how 'eternal' each instant of life is in this physical world we will experience an indescribable feeling of Joy and Happiness to be alive and able to do G-d’s Commandments here and now…with the physical body.
It's called "Simcha Shel Mitzva" the joy of doing a commandment.
It is this ‘Simcha’ that we will experience in its fullest in the Days of Moshiach “Then will our mouths be filled with laughter” (Psalms 126), which is the subject of the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov, but, if we open our 'eyes' (by learning the 'Chassidic' teachings of the Chabad Rebbes… see your local Chabad House for details) we can experience it today.
As the Lubavitch Rebbe said, Moshiach is here! Standing before us!! It all depends on us. One more good deed, word or even thought can do it and bring ….
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