By: Rabbi Yosef Kalatsky
- The Special Level of Yaakov, Our Patriarch
The Midrash Tanchuma states, “Reb Shimon Bar Yochai said, “Hashem said to the Klal Yisroel it is important for you to give honor to the mitzvos because the mitzvos themselves are My agents and they represent Me. One’s agent is equivalent to the one who sent the agent. If you honor the mitzvos you are honoring Me. If you disgrace the mitzvos then you are disgracing My Honor.” There was no person who ever honored mitzvos and kept the Torah more than Yaakov. As it is stated, “Yaakov is the perfect man who dwelt in the tent (of Torah).” It seems from Reb Shimon Bar Yochai that Yaakov’s observance of the mitzvos was unequalled by anyone. This statement indicates that even Moshe Rabbeinu, who was the teacher of Klal Yisroel, did not give the same honor to mitzvos as our Patriarch Yaakov. This fact is based on the verse, “Yaakov is the perfect man (ish taam) who dwelt in the tent (of Torah).” How does Reb Shimon Bar Yochai extrapolate from this verse that Yaakov’s performance of mitzvos was one of a kind?
Yaakov Avinu, Our Patriarch, possessed an innate purity and wholesomeness that no one else had. The Midrash tells us that when Rivka was pregnant with her twin children, Esav would bolt to exit his mother’s womb when she would pass a temple of idolatry. On the other hand, Yaakov would do the same when she passed the Yeshivah of Shem V’Aver. In utero, Yaakov was overwhelmingly inclined to spirituality and holiness, while Esav was inclined to physicality and impurity. The Torah identifies Esav as “the man of the field”- indicating that Esav was the personification of physicality. He was the antithesis of Yaakov, who is referred to as “ish taam – the perfect man”. His essence was pure and because of this, Yaakov was able to honor the mitzvos and keep the Torah like no other person.
Moshe Rabbeinu was chosen by Hashem to receive and transmit the Torah to the Jewish people. Being qualified as the conduit for the transmission of something as holy as the Torah, one would think that Moshe would be the one to honor the mitzvos to a greater degree than anyone else would. However, Reb Shimon Bar Yochai understands from Yaakov’s appellation of “ish taam” that because of his innate and unique, level of purity, the honor he gave to the mitzvos was also one of a kind. Although the Torah refers to Moshe as the most humble man on the face of the earth, he is not called an “ish taam”.
Chazal teach us “Derech Eretz (proper character and qualities) is a prerequisite for Torah.” Meaning, one must possess innate qualities and character traits in order to be able to acquire and process Torah properly. If one does not naturally possess these features, then they must be acquired. In Hilchos Deos (The Laws which pertain to Behavior), the Rambam says that even if one is born with deficient characteristics, he will be able to establish a “second nature” within himself through conditioning.
The Torah states at the end of the Book of Devarim, “Moshe said, “Torah is not in the heavens and not on the other side of the sea…” The Midrash explains that “not in heaven” means that if one possesses a swollen heart and is arrogant, he will not be able to acquire the Torah; an essential quality for the acquisition of Torah is humility. “Not on the other side of the sea,” means that if one is engaged in material success such as traveling the high seas for commerce, one is not able to attain the Torah; Torah requires total focus and commitment of time. One cannot achieve both simultaneously.
Yaakov honored the mitzvos and kept the Torah at an unequalled level because he not only possessed purity naturally, but also dedicated his total being to Torah. As the Torah states, “He dwelt in the tent (of Torah).” There are two prerequisites in order to succeed in the observance of mitzvos and keeping the Torah at an advanced level. Firstly, one must have a sterling character and secondly one must be dedicated to the Torah. If one’s character is corrupted, or even flawed, it would reflect itself in the Torah that he studies and the observance of his Judaism.
Rabbeinu Bachya asks- if Yaakov’s characteristic was “emmes,” as it is identified by the Novi (Prophet), why does the Torah refer to Yaakov as “ish taam – the perfect and wholesome person”? He explains that the word “taam” is derived from the word “teumim – twins/synthesis”. Yaakov synthesized and brought together the prominent quality of his father Yitzchak, which was Din “perfection – exactness” with that of his grandfather Avraham, which was Chesed “Kindness”. He adhered to these two principles in a perfect way – thus becoming the person who personifies them.
- Relationships are Established only Through One’s Worthiness
The parsha begins,”Yaakov lived in the land of Egypt seventeen years; and the days of Yaakov – the years of his life were one hundred and forty-seven years.” Rashi cites the Midrash, which addresses the paragraph structure of the opening verse of the Portion of Vayechi. It is referred to as a “parsha setumah – a sealed portion”. The Midrash offers two interpretations regarding its significance. The first explanation cited by Rashi is that when Yaakov passed away, the eyes and hearts of the Jewish people were sealed (became desensitized) because of the suffering that began with the bondage. In order to appreciate this consequence of Yaakov Avinu’s passing, the Portion is “sealed”. However, Rashi’s explanation seems to contradict a verse in the Portion of Shemos that the bondage began “when Yosef and all his brothers and that entire generation that had come to Egypt had passed away”. How do we understand this?
The Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh explains that there were many phases of bondage. The first phase began with the passing of Yaakov Our Patriarch. It started as a spiritual rather than physical bondage, which manifested itself with some lack of spiritual sensitivity on the part of the Jewish people. As a result, they no longer had the clarity that existed when Yaakov was alive. Since Yosef, the Viceroy of Egypt, was still alive, his family was treated like royalty. They were accorded all the privileges of society. However after Yosef passed away, the Jewish people took on a “second class” status. Ultimately, when the entire generation (and their special spiritual influence) no longer existed, the Egyptian people began the enslavement of the Jews – which evolved into full bondage.
The Torah tells us that Yaakov passed away at the age of 147 years. The Midrash says that initially it was destined that Yaakov should live 180 years as his father Yitzchak had. However, when Yosef presented his father to Pharaoh, Pharaoh was taken aback by the advanced age of Yaakov and asked him “How many are the days of the years of your life?” To that Yaakov responded, “The days of the years of my sojourns have been a hundred and thirty years. Few and bad have been the days of the years…” The Midrash tells us that Yaakov’s response was considered inappropriate because rather than being appreciative for all that Hashem had done for him he was complaining about the difficulties that transpired in his life. Hashem had said, “I swear that every word of your expression to Pharaoh which equals 33 words, will cause 33 years to be deducted from your life.” Thus, Yaakov lived 147 years.
Every moment of Yaakov’s existence had infinite worth. The value of 33 years of Yaakov’s life is incalculable. The effect of Yaakov’s influence on his family and on all of existence would have eternally brought the Jewish people to another level if it had continued for this period. Thus, the effect of his life being shortened is unfathomable. The destiny of the Jewish people was diminished by Yaakov’s passing and its effect was immediate. Instantly, the Jewish people lost their level of spiritual sensitivity. This is what Chazal meant when they said that the slavery began with the passing of Yaakov. It initiated a chain of events that first caused a spiritual bondage of the Jewish people and eventually culminated in the physical one that took effect when the entire generation passed away.