Genesis offers reminder to ‘really live’ wherever you may be


Jacob lived in the land of Egypt 17 years, and the days of Jacob, the years of his life, were 147 years. The time approached for Israel [Jacob] to die (Genesis 47:28-29). In Egypt, in exile, Jacob lived, really lived, even there. I assume that is the difficulty in the text that occasions the commentary with the first word of the portion, “Jacob lived.”

The portions of the Torah are ordinarily separated by a number of blank spaces in the scroll — but not this one. This one is not separated at all from the one before it. It is called “closed” (s’tumah). Clue.

Go to the Rashi. The first comment: the eyes and hearts of Israel were closed because of the passing of Jacob, not only because of that loss, but because the Egyptians began coaxing us into what would become slavery. In this version, slavery was a culmination of events — one event leading to another, a sequential decline.

Something else in the Rashi: The portion is closed because Jacob, as he was about to die, wanted to reveal something to his sons — the “end” — but it was closed off to him (see the Midrash, Bereshit Rabbah 96:1). The end is a revelation. It is a messianic vision — the end of all Exile. Jacob wanted to reveal to his sons his vision of the end of time.

But the vision is closed to him, according to Rashi. There are some things unfinished at the end of Jacob’s life. He is able to deliver blessings, to speak at length in metaphors to his children, but this ultimate redemptive vision of the end of time remains closed to him.

He is more concerned with his burial place. He needs the assurance — the oath — that he will be buried with his ancestors in their burial place. That is not the place where his wife Rachel is buried, whom he describes curiously this way: “Rachel died on me in the land of Canaan on the road,” Genesis 48:7. Died on me? Something unfinished there, too.

The Sfas Emes, another commentator, teaches that “Jacob lived” means that Jacob was truly alive, even in Egypt. What does it mean to be truly alive? It means to be attached to the root and source from which the life force flows. When you are attached that way you live, really live, wherever you are.

I know that without the Sefas Emes telling me, but this is a quality of knowledge I need reminders of now and again. Jacob lived, really lived, was truly alive, even in Egypt. If he did, I can — so can you — live, really live, wherever you are, whatever happens. That’s what it means to be alive.

Remember the clue: The text is closed off and at the end of Jacob’s life, the end of Genesis, there are no ends at all, no beginnings — only seams — and we are reminded of the illusion of all endings all beginnings, all arrivals and all starts. There is only the journey and movement and the inevitable ebb and flow. To be truly alive is to know that it doesn’t begin and it doesn’t end — it rises it falls, ascends and descends — life is a great river that flows out of itself into itself.

Rabbi James Stone Goodman serves Congregation Neve Shalom and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.