A Different Sort of Fear of Life

Jan 2nd, 2012 by Rabbi Simcha Weinberg in Portion of the Week
“The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time (Mark Twain).”

“Jacob lived in Egypt seventeen years, and the years of his life were a hundred and forty-seven. When the time drew near for Israel to die, he called for his son Joseph and said to him, ‘If I have found favor in your eyes, put your hand under my thigh and promise that you will show me kindness and faithfulness. Do not bury me in Egypt, but when I rest with my fathers, carry me out of Egypt and bury me where they are buried’ (Genesis 47:28-30).”

So the man we who was introduced to us as a “Wholesome and a Tent Dweller (25:27), now lives in, of all places, Egypt.

The man whose first direct taste of the power of death in defining life (Rashi, 25:32) was on the day his grandfather, Abraham died (Rashi, 25:30), when his brother said, “Look, I am going to die, so of what use to me is a birthright?”, now faces his own death.

He addresses some practical issues, and then, allows Joseph to return home. His “time drawing near to die,” doesn’t define his living his final days! Finally, “Some time later Joseph was told, ‘Your father is ill.’ So he took his two sons Manasseh and Ephraim along with him. When Jacob was told, ‘Your son Joseph has come to you,’ Israel rallied his strength and sat up on the bed.

Jacob said to Joseph, “God Almighty appeared to me at Luz in the land of Canaan, and there He blessed me and said to me, ‘I am going to make you fruitful and increase your numbers. I will make you a community of peoples, and I will give this land as an everlasting possession to your descendants after you.’

‘Now then, your two sons born to you in Egypt before I came to you here will be reckoned as mine; Ephraim and Manasseh will be mine, just as Reuben and Simeon are mine’ (48:1-5).”

Esau, at a young age, because of the eventuality of death, spurned the birthright, but Jacob, doesn’t address the issue of the birthright he will gift to Joseph until his final mortal illness. He doesn’t even address the issue when asking Joseph to supervise all the funeral arrangements, which would have been a good negotiating tactic – “I am giving the birthright to you, so can you please make sure I will be buried in Hebron?” – he waits until Joseph comes to him to bid farewell, his final moments, to discuss the birthright.

One brother shapes his destiny early on because of his fear of death, while the other waits until the very end to speak of it.

The first major event on Jacob’s life was shaped by another facing death. The next major event, too, the theft of the blessing, was also shaped by another’s approach to death:

“When Isaac was old and his eyes were so weak that he could no longer see, he called for Esau his older son and said to him, ‘My son.’

“Here I am,’ he answered.

Isaac said, ‘I am now an old man and don’t know the day of my death. Now then, get your equipment—your quiver and bow—and go out to the open country to hunt some wild game for me. Prepare me the kind of tasty food I like and bring it to me to eat, so that I may give you my blessing before I die’ (27:1-4).”

That experience ends with another mention of Esau thinking of death, “The days of mourning for my father are near; then I will kill my brother Jacob (Verse 41),” leads to yet another person thinking of death, Rebecca: “Now then, my son, do what I say: Flee at once to my brother Laban in Haran. Stay with him for a while until your brother’s fury subsides. When your brother is no longer angry with you and forgets what you did to him, I’ll send word for you to come back from there. Why should I lose both of you in one day’ (43-45).”

The groundwork is now prepared for the next major event on Jacob’s life, again by considerations of death!

“Then Rebecca said to Isaac, ‘I’m disgusted with living because of these Hittite women. If Jacob takes a wife from among the women of this land, from Hittite women like these, my life will not be worth living’ (46).”

Now that I think about it, the first major event in Jacob’s life, his birth, also had some discussion of death: “The babies jostled each other within her, and she said, ‘If it is such; why must I be’ (25:22).”

Isaac, hearing Rebecca’s concerns with the meaning of life, uses the opportunity to officially give Jacob the birthright! “So Isaac called for Jacob and blessed him. Then he commanded him: ‘Do not marry a Canaanite woman. Go at once to Paddan Aram, to the house of your mother’s father Bethuel. Take a wife for yourself there, from among the daughters of Laban, your mother’s brother. May God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful and increase your numbers until you become a community of peoples.  May He give you and your descendants the blessing given to Abraham, so that you may take possession of the land where you now reside as a foreigner, the land God gave to Abraham.’ Then Isaac sent Jacob on his way, and he went to Paddan Aram, to Laban son of Bethuel the Aramean, the brother of Rebecca, who was the mother of Jacob and Esau (28:1-5).”

Isaac’s words sound so familiar; we heard them all before in Chayei Sarah, the portion that dealt with Sarah’s death and burial!

Abraham was now very old, (another “death” consideration)

and God had blessed him in every way.

He said to the senior servant in his household, the one in charge of all that he had, ‘Put your hand under my thigh.” [Sound familiar: Jacob’s words to Joseph at the beginning of the portion: ‘Put your hand under my thigh.’]

I want you to swear by God, the Lord of heaven and the Lord of earth, that you will not get a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I am living, [Isaac’s words to Jacob.]

but will go to my country and my own relatives and get a wife for my son Isaac.’

So the servant put his hand under the thigh of his master Abraham and swore an oath to him concerning this matter (Chapter 24).”


Isaac and Rebecca’s relationship was shaped by death: “Isaac brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he married Rebecca. So she became his wife, and he loved her; and Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death (24:67).”

God was dead serious when He said to Adam, “You must surely eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die (2:16-17).” The Serpent certainly picked up on this being a huge issue:

“The woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but the Lord did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’

You will not certainly die,’ the serpent said to the woman. ‘For the Lord knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like powers, knowing good and evil’ (3:2-5).”

Oh no! Weinberg! Eden again?!

Yup! Let’s see why… With a slight detour or two on the way…

Author Info:
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