I don’t know about you, but I’ve been obsessively listening to the soundtrack of ‘Hamilton’ for some months now. At some point, nearly all of my passive thoughts have been replaced by hip-hop versions of 1790s-era cabinet battles. One of the tracks that persists in bouncing around my restive brain is ‘One Last Time,’ which tells the story of George Washington’s resignation and his final address to the nation. In addition to an actual quote from Washington’s 1796 speech, the song includes the following stanza, narrated by the President:
If I say goodbye, the nation learns to move on
It outlives me when I'm gone
Like the scripture says
Everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree
And no one shall make them afraid
They'll be safe in the nation we've made
I wanna sit under my own vine and fig tree
A moment alone in the shade
At home in this nation we've made
One last time
Washington was 65 when he left public life, and he did in fact get to enjoy his ‘moment alone in the shade / home in this nation we’ve made’ for two more years before his death in 1799. Drawing on the prophet Mikhah, Washington presents his vision for the future of America: everyone shall dwell under their own vine and fig tree - and none shall be afraid (4:4). In his farewell address, Washington elegantly straddled the personal and the political - offering a personal plea for forgiveness of any unintentional errors simultaneously with a warning of the potential pitfalls that might befall the new nation which he was leaving behind. Washington was not the first one to say goodbye in such a way, nor the last.
Intentionally or not, Washington surely was drawing on our Torah when he thought about how to say goodbye to the nation which he had founded. In this week’s parashah we see the farewell address of the founding father of another nation, ours. VaYeḥi tells us about Ya’akob’s last words to his children and grandchildren. Like Washington so many millennia after him, Ya’akob combines the personal and the political.
Nearly all the motifs of Bereshit are combined in this one speech: elder and younger sons are switched, children are adopted and lost, identities confused. Ya’akob looks back at his own past, at the loss of his wife Raḥel, and at the future, planning for his grandsons, Efrayim and Menasheh to establish themselves among the twelve tribes. The fusion of the personal and the political is actually made explicit by the text in a really beautiful way; The first line of the parashah reads: “And Ya’akob lived in the land of Mitsrayim for 17 years, making the days of Ya’akob, the years of his life, 147 years.” (47:28)
Here’s the thing, why would the text say: ‘making the days of Ya’akob, the years of his life, 147 years?’ Our tradition has always been firm that nothing in the Torah is accidental or ancillary, so why repeat ‘the years of his life?’ Actually, it may in fact be that there is another way to read this. The phrase in question, shené ḥayyav, is translated here as ‘the span of Jacob’s life,’ and it certainly can mean ‘the years of his life,’ but it can also mean ‘his two lives.’ What if we read the verse that way?
“And Ya’akob lived in the land of Egypt for 17 years, making the days of Ya’akob, his two lives, 147 years.”
What could the two lives of Ya’akob be? Some hint is already given to us, when in the next verse, the Torah begins: “And when the time approached for Yisra'el to die...” We just heard about his two lives, and now we’re hearing about his death, in the next verse?! But notice what has changed. We read about the life of Ya’akob, but we read about the death of Yisra’el.
Throughout our parashah, the Torah plays with the two names of our founding father - he is both Ya’akob who stole his brother’s birthright and fled to his cruel uncle’s house, and Yisra’el who wrestled with an angel and gave birth to the Jewish nation. When the Torah relates the episode in which he adopts and blesses Efrayim and Menashe, it calls him Yisra’el, but when in chapter 49, he turns to warn his sons of what might befall them after he is gone, he is Ya’akob. Ya’akob lives, but Yisra’el dies. Here we have a man with two names, and two lives. In some ways, our founding father lives twice: once as Ya’akob and once as Yisra’el, but according to the text, he dies as Yisra’el.
What does it mean to say goodbye? For any of us, it is a challenge. We often pray that we will have the chance to say goodbye to the people and things we love - but even if we are granted that opportunity, no words usually suffice. Yet, perhaps we can learn a lesson from Ya’akob and Yisra’el - that some part of us can live while the other dies. Lest you think I am making a false distinction here, the Talmud itself offers the following statement (Ta’anit 5b): “Ya’akob our ancestor never died.” Often that’s read simply as a metaphorical statement of how significant Ya’akob’s memory was to his descendants -- but perhaps its worth reading it a bit more literally. If this man had lived two lives, as we might read the text, but suffered only one death (as Yisra’el), then it is not such a shocking statement to say, ‘Ya’akob never died,’ as the Talmud does. Perhaps we can read it this way: the political vision of Yisra’el died with him, buried by his sons in his homeland - but the personal influence of Ya’akob the patriarch never did.
So too we see with our first President, that although his ideas and his vision for our country died with him, the personal effect he had on the ethos and culture of nascent America continues to live on. Most of Washington’s plans for America’s future were scrapped - most likely he would be shocked to see how this whole wild experiment has turned out! Yet, his legacy as our ‘founding father,’ his personal character and beliefs, are perhaps more present than ever. In this he took on the mantle of the Torah’s ‘founding father,’ in being both Ya’akob and Yisra’el. Perhaps Washington was even aware of this, sensing the importance of his own goodbye in preserving his legacy. So too we may see even with our most recent president, Barack Obama, who offered his own farewell address this past Tuesday night, in which he said:
My fellow Americans, it has been the honor of my life to serve you. I won’t stop; in fact, I will be right there with you, as a citizen, for all my remaining days. But for now, whether you are young or whether you’re young at heart, I do have one final ask of you as your president — the same thing I asked when you took a chance on me eight years ago. I am asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change — but in yours.
Whether Ya’akob or Yisra’el, Washington or Obama - what it means to say goodbye to an individual or to a cause is never simple. Perhaps, like our patriarch, we each live two lives - one: in which we work, in which we file taxes and write papers, in which we go to school and work, in which we find ourselves standing in a fluorescent-lit grocery store in the middle of the night. The other: in which we love, in which we care for other people, in which our ideas and our spirit changes the people and places around us. The first dies - nothing but a paper trail remains of that person. Our own Yisra’el can only exist in life, but in death, the second can live on. The person who we are who loves and cares and influences others, the Ya’akob that we all carry with us, as the Talmud tells us, never quite dies.
In ‘Hamilton,’ while the protagonist lies dying after having just been shot by his lifetime friend and enemy Aaron Burr, we hear from him a monologue which contains this line: "Legacy. What is a legacy? It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see." If we’re to believe the telling of Hamilton’s life found in the play, he was obsessed with his legacy. So too, we might say, was Ya’akob/Yisra’el. But what really is a legacy? It is what lives beyond death, it is the Ya’akob which continues after the death of Yisra’el. It is planting seeds in a garden you’ll never get to see.
When we live our lives, when we die our deaths - we are planting those seeds. May we find ways to plant ourselves into the future - through living, as Ya’akob has, in the love and legacy of others. May we be both like presidents and patriarchs, able to say goodbye, and able to create from ourselves something that lives far beyond the waking life we walk through.