Working Hard from the Deathbed

The Torah devotes three chapters to the very final stage of Yaakov's life, as it was packed with critical and strategic planning.

Rabbi Avraham Gordimer,

Judaism Rabbi Avraham Gordimer
Rabbi Avraham Gordimer
Rabbi Avraham Gordimer

This dvar Torah is in memory of my dear grandmother, ראשא בת דוד/Mrs. Irena Cabot, of blessed memory who passed on this week at age 101. She was an incredible source of love and inspiration to all, and she was our family's connection to the sacred traditions of European Jewry. Her life spanned centuries, and her presence reflected eternity. Those who knew her will readily see how many of the ideas below applied to her life.

The Torah's presentation of the final days and moments of the life of Yaakov Avinu (Jacob, our forefather) is starkly different than that of any other Biblical personality. The sunset period of Yaakov's life occupies three entire chapters of our parshah, where we read of Yaakov's charging Yosef (Joseph) with precise burial plans and a lengthy explanation thereof, Yaakov's promoting Menashe and Ephraim to the status of full-fledged Shevatim (Tribes), Yaakov's individual prophecies and berachos for Menashe and Ephraim and his own sons, and, according to our Sages, Yaakov's proclamation and teaching of the Shema to his children as well as his arranging the tribal formation for his descendants' travels when departing from Egypt almost two centuries later. Why did Yaakov need to do this all now?

Imagine the CEO of a company on the day before his retirement. Most people in such a position would take the day off or come to the office for a few hours and bring some treats or drinks for the staff. However, what if the CEO cared so much about the future of the company that, rather than taking it easy his last day at the job, he spent the entire final night of his employment at the office, planning and working assiduously for a smooth leadership transition and doing everything in his power to set up systems and goals for the company's long-term success, toiling nonstop until the literal end of his final work day? Yaakov was this CEO.

Yaakov lived at the conclusion of the Patriarchal Period. He worked without pause to try to ensure a successful future for his progeny and nation as a new era was about to commence. Yaakov's final days and moments on this earth were times of nonstop work toward this crucial goal. No taking it easy. Every second was invested with focused labor geared toward specific goals. Hence does the Torah devote three chapters to the very final stage of Yaakov's life, as it was packed with critical and strategic planning and actions that were of necessity for the future and perpetuity of the Jewish People.

This understanding of Yaakov's efforts helps explain a perplexing incident in last week's parshah, Parshat Vayigash. When Pharaoh asked Yaakov how old he was, rather than merely state his age (130 at the time), Yaakov added how bitter and difficult his life had been. Although various explanations are offered for Yaakov's comments, I would like to offer a new one here.

Often, someone who works very hard does not take a step back and enjoy the fruits of his labor. Such a person knows that he needs to continue to plug away and not take his eye off the ball for a second. This is a common characteristic of perfectionists, and it is also a required trait and approach for one who is cultivating, developing and steering an enterprise that is extremely precious and crucial.

Yaakov was totally engrossed in developing B'nei Yisrael as a nation, such that he could not take a step back and delight in the results of his work. Yaakov struggled and suffered greatly during his life, and his entire existence was one of hard labor from which he knew he could not take a break, relax and appreciate that which was accomplished. Yaakov therefore replied to Pharaoh that his life was full of hardship and struggle, as Yaakov's focus was his daily toil and the tribulations he faced that challenged his emotions, efforts and goals; Yaakov was so engrossed in his cultivation of B'nei Yisrael that he did not lift up his head and take pride in his accomplishments. Had Yaakov conducted himself differently, the results would have immeasurably suffered.

When describing Yaakov's expiration, the Torah omits mention of his death. יעקב אבינו לא מת - "Our father Yaakov did not die." (Rashi on Bereshit 49:33, from Taanit 5b) Yaakov's proactive involvement with every detail of the future of B'nei Yisrael is reflected by what we represent and who we are. Yaakov lives on quite literally and discernably through his progeny. May we merit to live up to the standards established for us by Yaakov and to move forward with unwavering faith on the path that Yaakov paved for us.