Parasha Vayehi: Life After Death
Parashat Vayehi begins with Yaakob Abinu summoning Yosef and asking, “Please do not bury me in Egypt.” Yaakob had Yosef promise on oath that he would bring his remains back to the Land of Israel, rather than bury him in Egypt.
Yaakob introduces his request by asking Yosef, “Do for me kindness and truth” (47:29). Rashi explains that when we perform an act of kindness for a deceased person, by fulfilling his wishes expressed before his passing or by showing him honor, it is considered “true kindness,” wholehearted and sincere, because it is done without any anticipation of reward. When we do a favor for a living person, even if we act sincerely, in the back of our minds we think that the favor will one day be reciprocated. Even the noblest act of kindness is accompanied by a tinge of self-interest, as we expect the beneficiary to someday repay his debt of gratitude. But when we act kindly to a deceased person, who cannot repay the kindness, we perform “Hesed Ve’emet” – true and genuine kindness, which is purely altruistic without ulterior motives.
Several questions have been asked regarding Rashi’s comment. First, the phrase “Hesed Ve’emet” appears earlier in the Torah (24:49), in reference to kindness performed for a living person. Eliezer, Abraham’s servant, tells Ribka’s family that they would be performing “Hesed Ve’emet” to Abraham by allowing their daughter to marry his son. How can Rashi claim that the term “Hesed Ve’emet” refers exclusively to kindness performed for a deceased person, if Eliezer used it in reference to kindness performed for Abraham while he was alive?
Secondly, is it really true that all kindness performed for a living person is partially insincere? When a wealthy person gives money to a destitute pauper, does he really expect any sort of payback?
To answer this question, we might explain Rashi’s comment differently. When Rashi writes that kindness for the dead is “true kindness” because “he does not anticipate reward,” he means not that the one doing the favor does not anticipate reward, but rather that the deceased does not anticipate reward.
Before a person leaves his world, he recognizes that his time for performing Misvot and earning eternal reward is coming to an end. It is told that the Vilna Gaon wept bitterly as he lay on his deathbed, and he explained that he wept because soon he would be no longer capable of earning reward in the next world. Misvot can be performed and merits can be earned only in this world, during a person’s lifetime. However, there is one way a person’s soul can experience elevation and have his share of the next world increased even after death – through the Misvot performed by his progeny. When a deceased person’s children or grandchildren perform Misvot as a result of the education and inspiration they received from the deceased, his soul is elevated. Although he can no longer earn merits by performing Misvot, he can earn merits through the Misvot performed by his offspring.
This concept is expressed by the Sages of the Talmud when they taught, “Bera Kar’a De’abu” – “A son is the father’s leg.” After a person passes on, he has no “legs,” he is no longer capable of advancing, of achieving, of moving forward and elevating himself spiritually. A son, however, has the ability to advance his deceased father by performing Misvot. And thus the child is the deceased father’s “leg.” He is the one who moves the father forward and elevates him in the next world, when the father is no longer capable of advancing himself.
This is Rashi’s intent in explaining the phrase “Hesed Ve’emet.” When a person prepares to leave this world, he expects that his time for earning reward is now ending. And therefore the greatest kindness we can do for a person is to enable him to earn reward even after his death by performing Misvot as he taught us to do. Yaakov requested of his son, “Do not bury me in Egypt” – as if to say, “Do not allow my progress and advancement to end when I die in Egypt.” He wanted Yosef to continue living the way Yaakob taught him, and this would ensure Yaakob’s continued elevation long after his death. Yaakob did not want to be “buried” in Egypt. He wanted to continue living even after his physical death through the power of the Misvot performed by his offspring. This is “Hesed Ve’emet” – the greatest kindness one can perform, facilitating a deceased person’s elevation in the next world.
Indeed, the Talmud teaches that “Yaakob Abinu Lo Met” – Yaakob never died. Since he left behind twelve children committed to Misvot, he continues to “live” even after death, through the good deeds performed by his descendants, all Am Yisrael.
This insight conveys a very important lesson to parents regarding the decisions they make for their children’s education and upbringing. Investing in our children’s Torah education is an investment that will continue paying dividends for eternity, even long after we have departed from this world. By inspiring, teaching and directing our children to live a life of Torah and Misvot, we ensure our everlasting growth and elevation, in both this world and the next. The key to immortality is properly educating and training our children to live in a way that will continue bringing us reward for all eternity.