Yaakov finished commanding his sons. He drew his feet on to the bed. He
was still, and was gathered unto his people.
Rashi: The pasuk omits mention of the word “death.” Chazal say that our
father Yaakov did not die.
Maharal: The gemara from which Rashi takes his comment fills in a bit
more. “Was it for naught that they embalmed him?” R. Yitzchok replied: “I
expound a verse!  ‘Fear not, my servant Yaakov, says Hashem. Do not
become broken, Yisrael. Behold I will deliver you from afar and your seed
from captivity.’ The pasuk compares Yaakov and his seed. Just as the seed of
Yaakov continue to live, so too is Yaakov among the living.”
Many are puzzled by this passage. Clearly, Yaakov died. They buried him!
Furthermore, the gemara challenges the statement that Yaakov remains alive
with a pasuk from the Torah, and attempts to answer it with a pasuk in Nach.
How could the latter possibly trump the former?
This is what Chazal mean: Existence and non-existence cannot coincide; they
have no connection with one another. It follows that if existence is
characteristic of one object, and non-existence is characteristic of
another, then the two objects cannot have an essential bond and connection.
The two are mutually exclusive. Father and son, however, certainly share a
strong bond. It is impossible to think that this bond exists only in the
lifetime of the father, and is severed with his death. We speak of a person
as being a “son” even after the passing of the older generation. Yet, the
word “son” has no meaning without reference to a father. What this means is
that the death of a father does not completely erase his existence. So long
as the son remains alive, the father does as well, to a certain degree. The
father and son do not stand in the same relationship as non-existence and
existence. They are not polar opposites, but share something that can be
said to be vital, alive.
Of course, this can be said of any father and son. The difference is not the
non-death of Yaakov, the father, but of the non-life of the son in every
other case. In most cases, the life of the son isn’t all that much of a
life. There isn’t much there to share with the father!
Let us explain. What we call life seems, understandably, very real to us. In
fact, however, it appears more like smoke and mirrors when seen against the
backdrop of Hashem’s eternal existence. Life without a connection to
eternity may feel real to people living it, because that is all they know.
Considering how fragile, fleeting, and often empty it is, however, what we
call “life” pales in comparison to the ultimate Reality of Hashem and true
spirituality. While there is a continuum of connection to the true source of
life, the connection to eternity of even great people is dwarfed by that of
the Yaakov’s progeny. Hence, the “life” of others, that aspect that
continues to be present in the father after his death, is not so
significant. Only in the special case of Yaakov is it appropriate to say
that the aspect of Yaakov that remained through the connection to his
offspring even after the father’s physical passing is a bit of true “life”
that banishes the idea of complete death. (Elsewhere, Chazal extend
this idea beyond Yaakov. They teach that whoever produces a son who toils in
Torah is as if he did not die. One who possesses Torah possesses life
itself, and this life applies to the father who is still linked to the son.)
On a deeper level, there is another way to explain Yaakov’s continued life.
Death is terminal, the reaching of an end. It is incompatible with someone
who cannot occupy an end point, an extreme.
Yaakov was that person. As the third of the avos, he occupied a position
intermediate between the extremes of Avraham and Yitzchok. It is inaccurate
to see Yaakov as simply a combination of the midos of his predecessors,
taking a bit of this and a bit of that. Rather, his function was to unite
and bind the other two, in such a way that there was no extremity in his
position, only the stability of intermediacy. Intermediacy was his
characteristic. It knows no extreme; it is beyond failure and death.
We have yet another way to explain our enigmatic passage. True life is
connection to Hashem. It is attachment to, clinging to, the Source of all
existence. What we see as existence is maintained by Hashem’s influence
reaching and sustaining us. It creates the possibility of connection – but
not the certainty. The physical nature of human beings interposes between
the Divine influence and its recipient. The influence is there, but the
connection, the attachment is weakened and attenuated by the limitations of
Yaakov transcended the limitations of the physical. He was a kadosh,
which itself means that he transcended the physical. His life of suffering
weakened his physical nature, but not his spirit. He was plugged into Hashem
while still on this earth. That life was never interrupted, never ceased.
The transition to a higher form of life that applies to the rest of us after
death never applied to him. He was alive, in the true sense, and he
continues to be alive.
1. Based on Gur Aryeh, Bereishis 49:33
4.Bereishis Rabbah 49:4