1. Parshas Vayechi1 which begins, “And Yaakov lived,”2 is the conclusion of the Book of Bereishis, the first book of the Torah.3 At the conclusion of this parshah, it is a Jewish custom4 to declare, Chazak, Chazak, Venischazeik, (“Be strong, be strong, and may we be strengthened”). This statement strengthens and encourages5 the Jewish people in all their concerns.

With respect to continued, ongoing life, Yaakov is in a way superior to the other two Patriarchs, Avraham and Yitzchak. Commenting on the phrase, “And Yaakov lived,” the Talmud states6 that “Yaakov, our ancestor, did not die.” When a protest is raised, “Was it in vain that he was eulogized, embalmed, and buried?” the Talmud replies:

This concept is derived from the exegesis of a verse. It is written,7 “ ’Do not fear, My servant Yaakov,’ says G‑d, ‘Do not become dismayed, O Israel. I will save you from afar and your descendants from the land of their captivity.’ ” An equation is established between Yaakov and his descendants.

Thus, Rashi explains,8 “And Yaakov lived,” “Yaakov lives forever.”

Since our Sages derived the concept that, “Yaakov, our ancestor, did not die,” from the equation established between Yaakov and his descendants,”9 it can be understood that there is an interdependence between the two, Yaakov’s continued “life” depends on his descendants. It is because “his descendants are alive,” that “he is alive.”

This concept of continued life is mentioned in regard to Yaakov and not in regard to Avraham and Yitzchak, because, in a complete sense, the concept that “his descendants are alive” applies only to Yaakov. As the Sages expressed it, “Yaakov’s bed was perfect”;10 i.e., all his sons were righteous and their offspring became the Jewish people. In contrast, Yishmael descended from Avraham and Eisav from Yitzchak.11 Thus, the concept that he is “alive” because “his descendants are alive” is appropriate only for Yaakov.12

This unique connection with his descendants results13 from the fact that Yaakov personifies the attribute of truth, as it is written,14 “You endow Yaakov with truth.” The nature of truth is that it descends into and permeates all levels, from the highest peaks to the lowest depths, with consistent integrity. Therefore, all of Yaakov’s descendants (including those born in every subsequent generation15 ) are alive: they reveal the eternal dimension of Yaakov’s life in this world.16

Based on the above, we can appreciate the encouragement, chizuk in Hebrew, (and in a threefold manner — Chazak, Chazak, Venischazeik,) which the conclusion of the Book of Bereishis grants the Jewish people.17 Bereishis describes the lives of the Patriarchs,18 of whom our Sages state,19 “The deeds of the Patriarchs are a sign for (and endow power to) their descendants.” By concluding with Yaakov’s life which — as explained above is dependent on the life of his descendants — the book alludes to the fact that each of Yaakov’s descendants, i.e., each and every Jew in each and every generation,20 is alive. Wherever and whenever he lives, he enjoys true life, for “You who cleave to the L‑rd,21 your G‑d, are alive.”22 This life stems from a connection to His Torah, “the Torah of life,”23 and its mitzvos, concerning which it is said, “And you shall live in them.”24

The above premise appears open to question: Within Jewish history, there have always been, as there are today, some members of the Jewish people, who — at least to outward appearances — do not conduct their daily lives according to the directives of the Torah and its mitzvos. If so, how can we say that all of Yaakov’s descendants are alive because of their connection with the Torah?

The answer to this question is alluded to in the Talmud’s exposition of the concept, “Yaakov, our ancestor, did not die.” In response to the question, “Was he not mourned, embalmed, and buried?” the Talmud answers, “This concept is derived from the exegesis of a verse. It is written, ‘Do not fear, My servant Yaakov....’ An equation is established between Yaakov and his descendants.” Since “the concept is derived from the exegesis of a verse” from the Tanach, it is surely true. Although the events in this world may give an impression to the contrary, “It only appears that he died: He is alive.”

The same applies to his descendants. Since the Tanach explicitly states that they are alive,25 this is surely true. An emphasis on their failure to conduct themselves according to the Torah and its mitzvos represents only a superficial appreciation of their being for, in truth, “they are alive.” Furthermore, saying that there is a lack of life in any of Yaakov’s descendants detracts from the life of Yaakov himself, for his “life” is dependent on theirs, as it were.

The appreciation of how such individuals are, in truth, “alive” depends on our Sages’ statement,26 “Although a Jew sins, he remains a Jew,”27 and on the Rambam’s ruling that28 :

“A person whose yetzer hara compels him to negate the performance of a mitzvah or to commit a sin... [still] wants to be part of the Jewish people and desires to fulfill all the mitzvos and separate himself from sin. It is only his yetzer hara which forces him [to do otherwise].

For a Jew, violating one of the directives of the Torah is only a superficial phenomenon: it was against his true will that he was compelled to act as he did. What does he really desire? “To be part of the Jewish people and... to fulfill all the mitzvos....” Therefore, regardless of his actual conduct, he is a Jew and shares a connection to the entire Torah.

This concept is also reflected in the verse,29 “The Torah which Moshe commanded us is an inheritance for the congregation of Yaakov.” The law prescribes that an inheritance is transferred to an heir regardless of his personal standing or conduct. Similarly, because a Jew is a descendant of Yaakov,30 the Torah becomes his.

There is an allusion to this concept in the final verse of our Torah portion,31 “And they placed him (Yosef) in a coffin in Egypt.” Throughout the Jews’ exile in Egypt, Yosef’s coffin remained there. When the Jews left Egypt, the Torah relates,32 “And Moshe took the bones of Yosef with him for Yosef had made the Israelites swear saying, ‘G‑d will surely recall you; you must [then] take my bones from here with you.’ ”

The Hebrew word for “bones,” Atzamos, relates to the Hebrew for “essence,” Etzem.33 Yosef is also used as the name for the Jewish people as a whole (as in the phrase,34 “Leader of the sheep of Yosef”). In this context, the placement of Yosef in “a coffin in Egypt,” can be interpreted in a positive light. Even when the Jews are in Egypt, i.e., even when there are forces which cause difficulty to the Jews35 (including the difficulties caused by one’s own yetzer hara), the essence of the Jews (Yosef’s bones) are intact, protected in a coffin, i.e., closed off on all sides from any undesirable influence.

Furthermore, Yosef’s coffin is also connected with the ark of the covenant which held the tablets of the Ten Commandments and a Torah scroll. (In Hebrew, the word Aron is used for both “ark” and “coffin.”) Our Sages relate,36 that throughout the entire time the Jews were in the desert, “these two aronos (Yosef’s coffin and the ark of the covenant)... would journey side by side.”

There is an interconnection between the two. The ark of the covenant protected the essence of the Jewish people. This is alluded to in the fact that the Ten Commandments were, “engraved on the tablets.”37 This implies that the commandments are part and parcel of the tablets themselves to the extent that it is impossible to separate between them.38 Similarly, the connection between the Jews and the Torah is engraved within their very being and they are fused into a single entity.

Regardless of a Jew’s apparent connection with the Torah (i.e., even when his relationship with the ark of the covenant is hidden39 ), it is impossible to make a separation between a Jew and the Torah. They remain one entity. As the Zohar states,40 “Israel, the Torah, and the Holy One, blessed be He, are one.”

This teaches us a lesson regarding the encouragement to be given the Jews while they are in exile, including this present exile. Indeed, because of the length and difficulty of this exile, such encouragement is particularly necessary. Therefore, the Torah teaches us that “Yaakov is alive,” because “his descendants are alive.” This emphasizes the true identity of every Jew, i.e., how he is “alive,” since he is connected with the “Torah of life.” Regardless of his present conduct, he has the potential — through turning to the path of teshuvah, and subsequently, through the observance of the Torah and its mitzvos — to reveal his true self. The awareness of this potential strengthens and encourages one to express this essential “life” in an open and revealed manner in his daily conduct.

2. The above also reveals the failing implicit in the approach which criticizes harshly those Jews who at present do not observe the Torah and its mitzvos and threatens them within ominous Divine retribution. Such an approach does not encourage anyone to increased Jewish practice or greater observance of the Torah and its mitzvos. Quite the contrary: it will weaken many people’s feeling for Judaism and turns them away from teshuvah. Experience has clearly shown that (particularly in the present generation), the only way to bring a Jew close to G‑d is to suggest, in a pleasant and loving manner, that he improve his conduct.41 Thus, our Sages state,42 “Let Moshe rebuke them — for he loves them.”43

This is particularly relevant in the present generation, for those who do not observe the Torah and its mitzvos are considered to be tinokos shenishbu, individuals who were deprived of a childhood environment conducive to Torah observance. As the Rambam writes:44

Each of the children of those errant individuals and their grandchildren who were led astray by their parents and were born among the Karaites and raised with their beliefs,45 is considered as a tinok shenishba, a child captured and raised by them.46 Such a person is not eager to uphold the ways of the mitzvos: he is considered as one held back by forces beyond his control. [This applies] even if afterwards, he hears (that he is Jewish and encounters Jews and their faith. He is [still] considered as one held back by forces beyond his control, because he was raised in their errant ways).... Therefore, it is proper to try to motivate them to repent and draw them close with words of peace until they return to the mighty pillar of the Torah.

There are additional reasons for which we should not to rebuke our fellow Jews by threatening them with Divine retribution and calamities. (In fact, such possibilities should never even be mentioned, in keeping with our Sages’ directive, “Do not utter words which empower the Satan.”47 ) In addition to the negative repercussions such an approach brings about, such statements are the direct opposite of the truth, the direct opposite of respect for G‑d, and the direct opposite of respect for the Jewish people. To explain: