Transcending mere existence

BY RABBI SEVERINE HAZIZA-SOKOL

In Va-y’chi we witness the only deathbed scene in the entire Torah. Our patriarch Jacob prepares for his departure from this world. And yet the parasha is not deliberately morbid, confining and drained of vitality. The first words we read place emphasis on the fact that Jacob lived life. The late Rabbi Dr. Joseph H. Hertz, Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, analyzing our sedra’s opening salvo, proclaimed “when someone dies, a death notice appears in the press. In reality, it is a life notice…” In Judaism we are asked to worship life and not death. According to the great 16th century Italian Biblical commentator Obadiah Sforno, Jacob knew how to draw a distinction between m’gurim, mere existence, and chayyim, true living. 

There are many forks in the road on the journey of life. Some paths lead to growth, others lead to decline. When we truly live, our contributions to this planet live beyond death. The great French Jewish Poet Claude Vigée believes that Jacob managed to tame time. Jacob was a dreamer who serves as an inspiration for poets everywhere. One could say the same about Mr. Vigée himself. In France, he is a national hero, a living treasure, and one of the last living-links to a European Jewish creativity destroyed by the Holocaust. 

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According to the First Book of Samuel one’s name reflects one’s essence. ‘Claude Vigée’ is now nearly 90 years old. His name itself stands as a testimony to the long struggle the poet waged, surviving extermination in France. The meaning of the French word Vigée means “I have life” and refers to the words of Jacob in the Torah who after his own struggle said “My life is saved” (Gen. 32:31). Mr. Vigée spent the war in the Resistance in Toulouse, saving other lives. Part of that Resistance was also spiritual. During the War, he would meet clandestinely with others to study Judaism. Then he would turn his attention to forging identity cards, visas, and permits for Jews to escape France. He claimed at the time: “Self-delusion saved us from too clear a knowledge of our fates. The invasion, the bombings, the people going up in flames running to and fro in the ruins, the cold, the loneliness, the terror, the nameless corpses.”

He credits his longevity to love. Love added years to his life. And even though his wife ‘Evy’ has passed away, he feels he could live his remaining days in tribute to her. He can actually do this in three tongues: Hebrew, French, and Judeo-Alsation, a rare Jewish dialect that is on the verge of extinction. According to Mr. Vigée, “language can only be pronounced dead when no breath of poetry strives to awaken it from a prolonged coma, bestowing on it with devotion, talent, and love, a saving kiss of life.”

When I had the personal privilege of speaking with Mr. Vigée earlier this year he told me “life is a marvelous thing…but at the same time, it is fierce.” He invoked Koheleth as we discussed the transience of life, and how precious each and every moment is. 

When I think of Mr. Vigée, I think of his extraordinary warmth and graciousness. But I am also reminded of his admiration for Jacob’s mastery of time. 

As Jacob lived life, as Claude Vigée lived life, we need to embrace life with gusto too. Being conscious of our journey allows us to appreciate more fully our destination. Each day is valuable. And if we value the time that we have together, these memories will not fade, they will form a lasting contribution to our Jewish heritage.

Rabbi Severine Haziza-Sokol serves Congregation Kol Am and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.