Parshas Vayechi; Special Effects

This week’s sedra contains the death of Yaakov avinu, and the brothers’ mourning of him. There is an interesting and pertinent passage of chazal, which we shall discuss. The gemarra (Taanis 5b) quotes Rav Yochanan, who says that ‘Yaakov avinu lo meis’ - Yaakov avinu didn’t die. The gemarra then asks ‘so why did they mourn and embalm him if he didn’t die? And it answers that Rav Yochanan learnt this concept (of non-death) from a pasuk which compares (hekesh) Yaakov to his offspring. Thus, just like his offspring are alive, so too is Yaakov; so he didn’t die.’ That’s the end of this gemarra. [look it up; why not!]

As you can imagine, this needs explanation. Firstly, how has the gemarra answered its question; despite a lovely comparison, they did still mourn and embalm Yaakov; why, if he wasn’t dead? And secondly, what exactly are we doing when we compare Yaakov to his offspring? One could add; can we really posit that Yaakov didn’t die; the psukim recount his pre-death blessing of his sons, his burial, and Yaakov certainly does not appear in the Torah again? (this question is very similar to the gemarra’s question really).

The answer lies in the opening two words of the gemarra. The gemarra does not say Yaakov didn’t die, but rather that Yaakov avinu didn’t die. Thus, the gemarra is saying that though Yaakov the person died (and they buried him, etc), his legacy and what he handed down to us as our founding father (avinu) lives on. This is expressed via the comparison between Yaakov and his offspring; it’s not that there happens to be a certain point of comparison between them, but rather that Yaakov’s legacy lives on through his children. His offspring are compared to him because they are part of him; he made them what they are. In four words: Yaakov avinu lo meis. (That’s all basically the explanation of the maharsha; he says that it could also be that Avraham and Yitzchak therefore didn’t ‘die’ too, in this context, for they were also our founding fathers. Again, it‘s worth looking up.)

In fact, much of the sedra pertains to Yaakov living after death through his sons, and setting up their futures. For example, Yaakov gives his children (and 2 grandchildren) brachos based upon their futures. And the sedra itself is called vayechi (‘and he lived’), despite Yaakov dying in it. The message? That our deeds outlive us; what we put into the world goes on even after our presence here has ended. One expression of this is in the above example; Yaakov avinu’s deeds and achievements found eternal expression in his descendents. The other expression of this is that our deeds can have knock-on effects, and to an extent these effects are attributed back to us. This latter aspect is conveyed in a mishnah in pirkei avos (2;1). The mishnah tells us ‘be careful with a smaller mitzvah just as you would with a larger mitzvah for you do not know the reward for mitzvos.’ But the mishnah does not just say that we don’t know ‘the reward for mitzvos’ (s’charan shel mitzvos); it says that we don’t know ‘the giving of the reward for mitzvos’ (mattan s’charan shel mitzvos). This means not only the reward for the mitzvah itself, but also the reward for the positive knock-on effects of that mitzvah, which existed due to you (R’ Dovid Kaplan). For example, smiling at someone (a mitzvah) might cause them to have a better day, and they might then give tzedakkah, and cheer up someone else’s day etc. And that’s all attributed to you to an extent, for you were the cause of that chain.

There is a great [true] story which illustrates this. A man walked in to Rabbi Michael Farber’s shul in Dallas and donated $12,000 to the new educational wing the shul was trying to build. The reason? Since when this person visited Israel recently for the first time, he went to the Kotel. There, he saw a chassid davening with great passion and was inspired. There and then, he decided he was going to do something good in honour of this chassid, and so decided to donate the money to the shul; even though he was not affiliated whatsoever. And after R’ Krohn told over this story in one of his talks, someone came up to him and told him that ‘it was due to that educational wing of the Dallas shul that I became a ba’al teshuva.’ All because of the effects of one Jew davening; and this chassid will probably be pleasantly surprised when in shamayim he will be given reward for the educational wing of the Dallas shul! In a similar vein, R’ Heiman gave his gemarra shiur in Torah V’Daas with the same fervour despite a snow storm meaning that only four boys could make it. When they asked him why, he replied that ‘I’m not only speaking to you; I am speaking to your children and their children.’ Again, this illustrates the far-reaching effects a mitzvah can reach.

This is also why chazal say that not only are the living judged each Rosh Hashanah, but the dead are judged too. But how can the dead be judged; they do not perform new mitzvos or aveiros each year? The answer is that the effects of what they did in this world are ongoing, and thus there is continuous change to their mitzvah accounts.

Lastly, perhaps this will help us understand a mishnah (avos 5;21). The mishna states: ‘Anyone who causes merit to the multitudes will not see sin through him. And anyone who causes sin to the multitudes will not have sufficient means to do teshuva. Moshe merited and merited the multitudes and their merit is accredited to him…Yeravam ben Nevat sinned and caused the multitudes to sin and their sins were accredited to him…’ The second part of the mishnah seems to be there to provide examples of the first part. But how are the first and second parts of the mishna connected; what does the fact that Moshe had the merits accredited to him prove about sin not arising through him? Based upon the above, one could suggest that the parts of the mishnah are indeed connected. For because of the fact that one who causes merit to the multitudes sees their mitzvos ascribed partly to him, the sins that people do are nothing to do with him; he did not have a hand in them. And moreover, he is less likely to sin too. But one who causes the multitudes to sin sees their sins ascribed to him, and thus teshuva becomes much harder; for not only must he do teshuva for his sin, but for the effects of the sin too - that everyone else sinned because of him; those knock-on effects.

PG we should only see good effects from our deeds, Have a great shabbes,

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