Likkutei Sichos, Shabbos Parshas Vayechi, 5751;
from the Sichos of 20 Menachem Av, 5731

I. Our Sages relate:1

Rav Nachman and Rav Yitzchak were sitting together at a repast. Rav Nachman asked Rav Yitzchak: “Share a word [of Torah].”

[Rav Yitzchak] replied: “Rabbi Yochanan taught as follows: One should not speak during a meal lest the windpipe open before the esophagus, causing danger. {When a person speaks, the covering of the windpipe opens, and [it is possible] for food to enter. This would cause danger…. [Generally,] food and drink pass through the esophagus.2 }

After [Rav Yitzchak] finished eating,3 he told him: “Rabbi Yochanan said the following: Yaakov Avinu did not die, (rather, he lives forever).”4

[Rav Nachman] replied to him: “Was it for naught that he was mourned, embalmed, and buried?”5

[Rav Yitzchak] told him: “My statements are based on a verse. It is written:6 ' “Do not fear, My servant Yaakov,” speaks G‑d, “And do not dismay, O Israel. For I will deliver you from afar, and your descendants from the land of their captivity.” ’ An association is established between [Yaakov] and his descendants. Just as his descendants are alive, he too is alive.”

The commentaries7 have noted several difficulties with this passage. [Among them:]

a) What did Rav Yitzchak gain by saying: “One should not speak during a meal…”? Seemingly, mentioning this directive itself is also a contradiction to its instructions.8 On the contrary, the concept “Yaakov Avinu did not die” which he wished to convey, takes up less words than the directive “One should not speak during a meal….” Seemingly, it would have been more appropriate to make that statement alone.

It has been suggested9 that with the statement: “One should not speak during a meal…,” Rav Yitzchak was not explaining why he would not share a Torah concept with Rav Nachman.10 Instead, he was reproving Rav Nachman for speaking with him in the midst of a meal.11 Since special priority is given to statements which are intended to dissociate a person from a transgression12 over other words of Torah,13 Rav Yitzchak made this brief statement. {He did not, by contrast, tell him: “Yaakov Avinu did not die…,” for that statement has no relevance with regard to one’s immediate conduct.14 Therefore, there is no need for it to be made in the midst of a meal.}

This interpretation, however, also appears insufficient. Were this his intent, seemingly it would have sufficed for him to have said: “One should not speak during a meal,” and not to have continued speaking in the midst of the meal. The rationale for this law, “lest the windpipe open before the esophagus, causing danger” is unnecessary.

True, adding this rationale does impress a listener with the severity of the matter, because “danger to life is considered more severe than transgression.”15 Nevertheless, for that very reason, seemingly, in the midst of a meal, one should confine oneself to a brief directive, for that is sufficient to dissociate the person from the transgression. After the conclusion of the meal, the rationale for the prohibition could have been added.

b) The manner in which concepts are stated in the Torah is precise. Therefore, Rav Yitzchak’s statement that “Yaakov Avinu did not die” which he made after the meal appears to be connected with the statement he made during the meal, that “One should not speak during a meal….”16 [How are they related?]

c) Rav Nachman’s reply: “Was it for naught that he was mourned, embalmed, and buried?” is problematic. Seemingly, he should have said: Since Yaakov did not die, why was he mourned, embalmed, and buried?17

d) What is the significance of his reply, quoting the verse: “Do not fear, My servant Yaakov.” Seemingly, this does not answer the question: “Was it for naught that he was mourned, embalmed, and buried?”18

There are commentaries19 who explain that by identifying his source as the verse: “Do not fear,” and extrapolating “Just as his descendants are alive, he is alive,” Rav Yitzchak was explaining his original intent. His statement that Yaakov did not die was not meant to be taken in an absolutely literal sense, that his physical body did not die. For indeed, in this context, he did die. Instead, he was speaking about “the life of the soul.”

This explanation, however, is difficult to accept. (If this is the intent, what is the new concept conveyed by the statement: “Yaakov Avinu did not die”? The “life of the soul” of all tzaddikim is eternal. Moreover,) it does not concur with Rashi’s interpretation of the passage. Rashi states that Yaakov was embalmed, because “they thought that he had died.” And afterwards,20 he writes: “It appeared to them that he had died, but he was alive.” From this, it is apparent21 that Rashi interprets the statement: “Yaakov Avinu did not die” in the most literal sense, that his body did not die, as he writes: “he did not die, rather, he lives forever.”

e) According to Rashi’s commentary, the explanation does not appear to be contained in the text.22 The answer to the question “Was it for naught that they mourned?…” is that it only appeared to them that he had died. (And this is not stated in the Talmud.) The extrapolation from the verse merely brings proof that Yaakov did not die. It does not resolve the difficulty raised by Rav Nachman.

II. It is possible to resolve the above difficulties by seeing this passage in the context of its place in the Talmud. This story follows several other dialogues between Rav Nachman and Rav Yitzchak in which Rav Yitzchak replies: “Rabbi Yochanan said the following:…” The statements which he quotes in the name of Rabbi Yochanan all explain the miraculous nature of G‑d’s conduct with regard to the Jewish people.

For example, the first of the passages mentioned there states:23

[With regard to the verse,24 “In the first month, He has granted you the first rain, and the final rain.”] Rav Nachman said to Rav Yitzchak: “Do the first rains descend in Nissan? The first rains descend in MarCheshvan….”

[Rav Yitzchak] told him: “[The promise of] this verse was fulfilled in the days of Yoel ben Pasuel, as it is written…. That year, Adar passed without having any rain descend. The first rains descended on the first day of Nissan. The prophet told the Jewish people: “Go out and sow [your fields].”

They answered him: “If a person has a measure of wheat, or a measure of barley, should he eat it and live, or should he sow it and die.”

He told them: “Notwithstanding [your logic], go out and sow.”

A miracle was wrought on their behalf and the kernels [concealed] in the walls and in the ant hives were revealed for them. [They sowed] them on the second, third, and fourth days. On the fifth day of Nissan, the second rain descended. And on the sixteenth of Nissan, they offered the omer. Thus grain [which usually] grows in sixth months, grew in eleven days.

Following the statements from Rabbi Yochanan of this nature, the Talmud relates the story of Rav Yitzchak and Rav Nachman dining together. We can assume that when Rav Nachman asked Rav Yitzchak to share a Torah thought, Rav Nachman also knew that, because of the possible danger, one should not speak during a meal. Nevertheless, he thought that this prohibition applied only to ordinary talk,25 and not to the words of the Torah.

When speaking words of the Torah, one might think that there is no need to worry about danger, because “the Torah protects and saves.”26 Indeed, we are obligated to recite words of Torah at a meal as reflected by the Mishnah:27 “When three eat at one table without speaking words of Torah there, it is as if they ate of sacrifices to the dead…” Thus there is no need to worry about danger. When the Jews are occupied in Torah study (as commanded by G‑d), G‑d will protect them even in situations when, according to the natural order, there is a possibility of danger.

For this reason, Rav Yitzchak gave a full reply to Rav Nachman, mentioning not only the directive, “One should not speak during a meal,” but also the rationale, “lest the windpipe open before the esophagus, causing danger.” With this rationale, he demonstrates that the prohibition applies28 also to the words of Torah.29

To cite a parallel concept: It is written:30 “One who observes a commandment will not know evil.” And we have been taught: “Agents [charged with the performance of] a mitzvah will not be harmed.”31 Nevertheless, we cannot rely on this principle “in a situation where harm is probable,”32 as reflected in the narrative to follow:

([G‑d commanded Shmuel the prophet] to anoint David. Although Shmuel was sent by G‑d, he was frightened,)33 as it is written:34 “Shmuel said, 'How can I go? Shaul will hear, and he will kill me.’ ”

“And G‑d replied: 'Take a calf [to offer as a sacrifice].’ [I.e., do not rely on the mitzvah to protect you, instead, employ a ruse.]”

To apply that concept in our context, since there is the possibility that “the windpipe open before the esophagus, causing danger,”35 this is considered an instance where “harm is probable.” Therefore, one cannot rely on the protective influence of the Torah and its mitzvos and hence, even words of Torah should not be spoken during a meal.

III. Based on the above, it is possible to explain the continuation of the narrative: “After he finished eating, he told him: 'Rabbi Yochanan said the following: Yaakov Avinu did not die.’ ” According to the interpretation mentioned above, Rabbi Yochanan’s statement: “One should not speak during a meal…” reflects a general concept that applies with regard to the effect of the Torah and its mitzvos on the world at large. As Rabbi Yochanan emphasizes, although there are times when G‑d works miracles for the Jewish people which transcend the natural order, by and large, a person’s endeavors in the sphere of the Torah and its mitzvos must be enclothed within the natural order of the world. As such, although the Torah does bring about protection and deliverance, one cannot rely on this in a situation where harm is probable and miracles are required.

This concept — that our endeavors in the observance of the Torah and its mitzvos must be enclothed within the natural order of the world — can be explained in two ways: Either that the natural order requires such conduct, or that the Torah requires it.

a) This is required by the natural order. Since the laws of nature are a creation of G‑d, G‑d does not desire that the Torah and its mitzvos be observed in a manner that nullifies the natural order. As Rabbeinu Nissim writes:36 “It is G‑d’s desire and will to maintain the natural order to the greatest degree possible. The natural order is precious in His eyes, and He does not negate it unless it is absolutely necessary to do so.”37

b) This is required by the Torah, i.e., the purpose of the Torah and its mitzvos is to affect the natural order of the world, and not to modify it.

According to the first explanation, our endeavors within the Torah and its mitzvos must be enclothed within the natural order, because (since the Torah and its mitzvos were given within our world), they are governed by the rules of nature, (as it were). Therefore, the observance of the Torah is limited to situations where that observance is possible according to the rules of nature.

The second interpretation, by contrast, does not view the natural order as being able to confine or limit a person’s observance of the Torah and its mitzvos. [The limitation is willful.] For the Torah prescribes that our observance must be enclothed within the world,38 (rather than negate the natural order of the world).

IV. It is possible to say that these two approaches lie at the crux of the difference of opinion between Rav Yitzchak and Rav Nachman.

When, after eating, Rav Yitzchak quoted Rabbi Yochanan’s statement: “Yaakov Avinu did not die,” his intent was to [highlight the second of the opinions mentioned above]. The fact that the observance of the Torah and its mitzvos must be enclothed within the natural order is not because the laws of nature can control the Torah and its mitzvos.

On the contrary, as indicated by the statement: “Yaakov Avinu did not die,” not only are the Torah and its mitzvos not confined by the limits of nature, they transcend that sphere entirely.

According to the laws of nature, death is an unequivocal reality, for it is impossible for a limited created being, subject to change, to exist with eternal vitality.39 Nevertheless, Yaakov Avinu did not die. Yaakov was “the chosen of the Patriarchs,”40 and as such, his entire existence was the Torah,41 as it is written:42 “Yaakov was a simple man, a dweller of tents.” Therefore, just as the natural order does not limit the Torah itself, it cannot restrict Yaakov.43

Rav Nachman, by contrast, follows the first approach mentioned above. He interpreted Rabbi Yochanan’s teaching forbidding speaking in the midst of a meal because of the danger that might arise as indicating that the Torah is limited by the natural order.

This is the intent of his reply: “Was it for naught that he was mourned, embalmed, and buried?” (He did not ask, if Yaakov was alive, why were these deeds performed? Instead,) his intent was that the fact that the Torah relates how Yaakov was mourned, embalmed, and buried, and tells that these activities were performed at the instruction of Yosef44 (— indeed, the burial, which is a mitzvah, was performed based on the instructions of both Yaakov and Yosef —) indicates that the Torah recognizes the limitations of the natural order. If one were to say that “Yaakov did not die,” the Torah’s description of the activities performed with Yaakov’s body is not true according to the Torah. (According to this conception, these activities would have been performed “for naught,” only because of this mistaken perception of the Egyptians who did not know that he did not die.)

In response to this objection, Rav Yitzchak states: “My statements are based on a verse…. Just as his descendants are alive, he too is alive.” When he said, “Yaakov Avinu did not die,” Rabbi Yochanan was not referring to the dimension of Yaakov’s being that could be appreciated by the Egyptians, but rather, his true being (which applies also to his bodily existence).

Yaakov’s true being is as it is conceived by the Torah, and this is not bound by the limitations of nature. Instead, “he is alive.” This is implied by Rav Yitzchak’s words: “My statements are based on a verse…. Just as his descendants are alive, he too is alive.” Although from a material perspective (i.e., as the Egyptians view existence), this could not be perceived, as the concept exists in the Torah, and is extrapolated, [Yaakov’s true life can be appreciated].

As such, there is no contradiction between the concept that Yaakov did not die, and the fact that “he was mourned….” He was mourned, embalmed, and buried, because as the Egyptians perceived reality, it appeared to them that he had died. For from their perspective, this concept was true (according to the Torah).45 Hence they performed these activities with Yaakov’s body. For the expression of the Torah and its mitzvos as they are enclothed in the matters of the world is a true expression of the Torah’s intent.

And thus, both aspects are true according to the Torah: As they exist independently (far zich), the Jews and the Torah are not bound by the natural limitations of the world. Nevertheless, G‑d desired that the effects of the observance of the Torah and its mitzvos be enclothed within the natural order of the world. [And from that perspective, these activities are in place.]

V. Just as this above applies with regard to Yaakov Avinu, “our grandfather Israel,”46 so too, it applies with regard to his descendants. “His descendants are alive.” This applies even as they exist in Egypt, “the nakedness of the land,”47 and in all the subsequent exiles, for “all the ruling nations are described with the term Mitzrayim, Egypt.”48 The Jews are “the smallest among the nations,”49 and “one lamb among seventy wolves,”50 and thus they are “in a situation where harm is probable,” physical harm, and even more so, spiritual harm. Nevertheless, concerning them it is said: “ 'Do not fear, My servant Yaakov,’ speaks G‑d, 'And do not dismay, O Israel. For I will deliver you from afar, and your descendants from the land of their captivity.’ ” An association is established between [Yaakov] and his descendants. Just as his descendants are alive….” Even as Yaakov’s descendants exist in captivity and exile, they remain alive. For “you who cling to G‑d, your L-rd, are all alive.”51 Although the natural laws of probability would not allow for this, these natural laws do not determine the Jews’ future.

Thus we see two dimensions of the Torah and the Jewish people: a) as they “sit at a repast,” i.e., as they are enclothed in the material dimensions of existence, in which instance, even their Torah activity recognizes the limits of the world. (Therefore, we do not speak words of the Torah in a place where harm is likely.)

b) as they exist “after eating,” above the material plane, after they have completed the task of refining the material world. At that time, the essential quality of the Jews which transcends the natural order will be revealed, and it will be seen that “Yaakov did not die,” and that “just as his descendants are alive, he too, is alive.”

VI. Although we find the application of the concept of the eternality of physical existence with regard to Yaakov alone, when focusing on its inner dimensions, it can be applied to all Jews. As the Mishnah states:52 “All Israel have a portion in the World to Come.”

In this context, the term “World to Come” refers to the Era of Resurrection.53 The rationale for this is reflected in the prooftext quoted by the mishnah:54 “And your people are all righteous; they shall inherit the Land forever. [They are] the branch of My planting, the work of My hands in which to take pride.”

Since they are “the branch of My planting, the work of My hands” — G‑d’s handiwork, as it were — all Israel will arise at the Resurrection of the Dead. Even their bodies will exist with eternal vitality.55

This is transferred as an inheritance from Yaakov Avinu, who did not die. In particular, this applies because Yaakov was “the chosen of the Patriarchs,” chosen by G‑d Himself. And with regard to G‑d’s choice of the Jewish people, the Tanya explains56 that G‑d’s choice of the Jewish people applies not only to their souls (which are “an actual part of G‑d from above”),57 but also (and primarily) to their bodies.

Thus the mourning and burying of Yaakov, which was required by Torah because it appeared to them that he died, draws down the potential for every Jew to reach the Resurrection of the Dead through the task of refining and purifying the body. This refinement is accomplished through the negation of the body, via its return to dust58 (which as explained,59 can be fulfilled through the spiritual service of “My soul will be as dust to all,”60 in which case there is no need to actually return to dust). This brings us to the Resurrection of the Dead in the true and ultimate Redemption.