Death and Mortality

Rabbi Israel Chait

Written by a student

Student: On “VaYikrivu yemai Yisrael lamus; And Israel’s Days Drew Close to Death” (Gen. 47:29) Rashi explains as highlighting Yaakov’s failure to reach the age of his father (Yitzchak lived 180 years and Yaakov lived 147 years).  The language of of “Keriva L’amus” (closeness to death) indicates such.  The question is, why is this fact important?  People live different durations; what is the significance of not reaching the age of one’s father?

Rabbi Chait:  As a person’s death approaches, he faces his own mortality.  Through his identification with his father, a person also encounters his own mortality when confronting his father’s death.  In both situations, a person’s emotions are aroused, and he is provided an opportunity for reflection and Teshuva.

When a person approaches the age at which his father died, through his identification with his father, he similarly encounters his own mortality.  This provides another opportunity for Teshuva.  The Pasuk is highlighting that Yaakov was not provided this opportunity.  (Although Yaakov was to die shortly, and he would face his own mortality, he missed an additional opportunity of encountering his mortality had he lived past the age of his father’s death.)

Student: Why is it important for the Torah to highlight that Yaakov did not receive this opportunity for perfection?

Rabbi Chait:  The Torah is teaching that Yaakov didn’t require this extra encounter with his own mortality for his perfection, since he had continuously encountered his mortality throughout his life.  As the Midrash Tanchuma says, quoted by Rashi on 43:14:  

The one who said to the world “enough,” should also say “enough of my own troubles,” as I did not have peace since my youth: I had the pain of Lavan, the pain of Esav, the pain of Rachel, the pain of Dina, the pain of Joseph, the pain of Shimon, and the pain of Benjamin.

Moreover, during Yaakov’s tribulations with his loss of Joseph and Binyamin, Yaakov states (42:38):

My son should not go down with you, for his brother died and he alone is left. And should mishap happen to him on the travels that you go, you will bring down my gray hair in sorrow to the grave.