This week’s Torah reading of Vay’ḥi (Genesis 47:28-50:26) is mostly concerned with the final days and death of Jacob in Egypt. And while its opening phrase is generally translated “And Jacob lived,” the absence of a single dot in the Hebrew spelling of the first word allows it to be read “And Jacob will live”—leading to the midrash that “Our father Jacob never dies.” Interpreting this teaching through a kabbalistic lens, and drawing on the rabbinic dictum that “the deeds of the fathers are a sign [of what will befall] the children,” David Wolpe concludes that we ought to see in Jacob’s life the repeating patterns of Jewish history:
The tradition of exile and return is a [pattern] in Jewish history. It happened in the past; it is a part of the Jewish experience, and it happens again. The tradition of commentary grows and grows but keeps the same overall shape, which is why the generations of commentators are in dialogue with one another.
Jacob is leaving his children to face the world that will change. So he must give them lessons that will not change. He must bless them enduringly, with patterns that they and their children and their grandchildren will be able to understand, and will recur in their lives.
As we review Jacob’s life we recognize the patterns: young and ambitious and perhaps heedless of others; visionary and spiritually aspiring; eager and in love; a parent who made mistakes, suffered, lost people dear to him yet lived a full life. We see that those patterns indeed do not die, that we repeat them generation after generation as if, like Russian dolls, our lives are nested inside one another.
The book of Ecclesiastes embodies this lesson, that everything which happens repeats what has gone before. There is something beautiful and sustaining in knowing that, even as we live our own lives, our ancestors’ live through us.