The parshah that recounts the death of Jacob begins: VaYechi Ya’akov/ Jacob lived. Some see in this beginning a testimony to unending vitality despite death.
Jacob, aware that his life is ending, says: I am to be gathered to my people; bury me with my ancestors… (Genesis 49:29).
An ancient interpreter pushes the verse beyond its straightforward reading, making of it the old patriarch’s reflection on two possible futures after his death:
If you merit it, you will succeed in having me. If not, when I depart from the world I will go to my ancestors. (Click here for midrash in Hebrew and English)
In other words, in this rereading of the verse, Jacob says: “When I die, either I am to be gathered into the ongoing life of my people, or I am to be buried with my ancestors. You, my children, must determine my future. Am I to be with you, gathered to my people, or will I be buried with my ancestors in the storied past?”
The Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai, agrees that being “gathered” leads to life beyond a lifespan:
When someone dies they say of him, he is gathered to his ancestors.
All the time that he lives, his ancestors are gathered in him,
every single cell in his body and his soul representing
one of tens of thousands of his ancestors since the beginning of all generations.
(Click here for Amichai’s poem in Hebrew and English)
The gathering takes place within a life which, at its end takes its place within the gathering. The gathering of my ancestors within me fuels my vitality just as it assures theirs.
Jacob was the last of the Patriarchs. What makes his and his wives Patriarchs and Matriarchs? From a purely psychoanalytical point the view the father is the son of his childhood (read this as gender neutral). Jacob embodies his own youthful experiences as the unintended, but not unintentional, inheritor of his birthright and all the adventures that led to his sojurn to Egypt. Jacob is the son of the Isaac, who encompasses both unimaginable timidity and incredible faith and courage. Isaac is also a man of love, as was Jacob and his wives. Isaac inherited his faith, in turn from his father and mother, Abraham and Sarah, who set out to a land they did not know and thereby achieved a promise of fecundity and blessedness.
The Patriarchs and Matriarchs began there lives as ordinary people, who through their actions and their love of God, became extraordinary people. We are their descendants. Each of us contains the divine spark that they kept alive. It is our choice to become their descendants. We are all Jews by choice, whether or not we get swept up by the torrents of history, and all the ground we stand on is holy.