By Mike Steklof, Ed.D.
Over the past few weeks, the Torah has walked us through the entire life of the patriarch Jacob. Beginning in utero we witness Jacob’s complex relationship with his brother Esau, his deception, taking the first born’s blessing from his father, his marriages to Leah and Rachel, his name change, his journeys to new lands, the many adventures of his children, and the list goes on and on.
This week, we conclude the book of Genesis and the story of Jacob’s life. On his death bed, Jacob offers blessings to each of his male children, then “When Jacob finished his instructions to his sons, he drew his feet into the bed and, breathing his last, he was gathered to his kin” (Genesis 49:33).
In the Talmud, however, we read a slightly different interpretation of the story; we are presented with the idea that Jacob “did not die,” since his descendants, the Jewish people, are alive. Therefore, Jacob must be alive as well (Taanit 5b).
When I read this section of the Talmud, I wondered why it would disagree with the Torah on what seemed to be a well-established fact that Jacob had died. What was the Talmud teaching us? Did it literally mean that Jacob was still alive to this day or was it presenting a metaphor to make a point about how to create an eternal legacy?
Rabbi Sir Ephraim Mirvis, Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, teaches this verse of Talmud by stating: “Since Jacob influenced so many people who internalized his values and passed them on through the generations, he is considered still to be alive.” In other words, Jacob is not literally alive, rather the Talmud is using Jacob’s death to remind us that by passing down our values to the next generation, we too can live an eternal life.
Sarah Hurwitz, author of Here All Along: Finding Meaning, Spirituality, and a Deeper Connection to Life-in Judaism (After Finally Choosing to Look There), also believes that Judaism sees the human soul as immortal. She teaches, “that we live on the deeds of the people we touched, and all those affected by those deeds, who then go on to affect others with their deeds in an endless pay it forward chain”.
In this new year, let’s consider what we can each do to live eternally. We can strive to serve as an inspiration to others, pass our values on to the next generation and form an endless pay it forward chain. Whatever we do, let’s each work to live eternally and create a better world together.
Mike Steklof, Ed.D, is Senior Director of LiNK Jewish Buffalo.