Dvar Torah: Life and Death

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 21 March 2015

Life and death, the eternal paradox.  This week’s Torah portion is calledVay’chi – and he lived – from its opening word, yet is concerned in its entirety with death – first that of Jacob and then of Joseph.  Jacob blesses his sons and makes them swear that they will take him back for burial to the Cave of Machpela, which his grandfather Abraham had bought as a family burial plot. With the permission of Pharaoh and a huge Egyptian escort, Jacob’s sons duly return to Canaan to bury him together with his wife, Leah, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca.  Midrashic tradition has it that Adam and Eve are also buried in the Cave of Machpela.

Some 54 years later – covered by the Torah in just five verses Joseph dies.  His final age of 110 was regarded in Egyptian writings as the perfect age, much as Judaism regards 120.  At his death, Joseph’s body is embalmed and put into a coffin ready to be taken to Canaan at some time in the future.

The word used for a coffin here is aron, the only time that it is used with this meaning in the Torah.  We are much more used to the word aron being the ark housing the two tablets of stone on which the Ten Commandments were written.  To this day we retain that connection with the aron kodesh, being the holy ark in which we keep the sifrei Torah, the Torah scrolls.  Now another name for the Torah is etz chayim, the tree of life, for as the rabbis teach us, all of life is Torah; Torah contains within it all that is necessary for life.

So to match the title of the sidrah meaning ‘and he lived’ and its contents being about death, we have the paradox of the aron being both the place for the dead and also for life and living.  The only difference is that in the case of the dead the aron is closed, while we open the aron to bring out the Torah scrolls so that we might learn and live by them.  A community which doesn’t live by the Torah, which keeps the aron physically and/or metaphorically closed is a dead community.  Life and death, the eternal paradox.