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Ancient texts have no shortage of cool phrases; think of Homer’s “rose-fingered dawn” or “swift-footed Achilles.” There is really not much depth of meaning to be found in such examples, as they are clearly there for the rhyme and the mnemonic.
I submit that the Torah’s use of similarly “styled” language is not an epithet or other normal literary device, that instead the text means something very specific and much more intriguing. In this case, I’d like to look at a phrase found sometimes when someone dies: The text says that the person is “gathered to his/your/their people.”
This seems straightforward enough if it were an epithet or euphemism: someone has died. Simple, right?
It is not so simple. For starters, the text gives us the straight story anyway – that someone has died: “[Avraham] breathed his last and died, old and contented, and was gathered to his people.” (Gen. 25:8). Similar language is used for Isaac: “So Isaac breathed his last and died, and was gathered to his people, being old and full of days.” (Gen. 35:29) If “gathered to his people” means merely that Avraham and Isaac died, then why the extra phrase?
To make things more complicated: the two-words for “gathering” (asaf) and “the nation” (am) is used in one occasion about someone who is NOT dead: Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aharon, is gathered back to the people after a brief exile in Numbers 12:15. Which tells us that there is something else going on here. Indeed, it also suggests that “gathered back to the people” is not a way of describing an afterlife, either – since she was living.
The first place a word is used in the Torah tells us what it means. The word for “gathered,” asaf, is first found in the story of Noach.
For your part, take of everything that is eaten and gather it, to serve as food for you and for them. (Gen, 6:21)
The usage of the word here is also duplicative – if something has been taken, it has already been separated. But the context makes it clear: things that are “gathered” are afterward absorbed, to sustain life.
When we take this insight, and see where the word for “gathered” is twinned with “to the people,” we see that the phrase is not used to describe many people: it is limited to the forefathers Avraham, Isaac and Jacob, and then Miriam (when she was living), Aaron, and Moses. What makes these particular people different than everyone else in the Torah? The answer is that these are the people who are most important to every Jew. To be a Jew is to learn the Torah that Moshe brought; to learn from and seek to emulate our forefathers Avraham, Isaac and Jacob; and to internalize the path to holiness that is shown through Aaron the high priest. And it is to experience the love that Miriam infused into the whole people, the embodiment of kindness and devotion.
In other words: through the Torah, each of these people gained immortality because their influence transferred upon their death (or during the life of Miriam), to all of their people in the future! Those who are “gathered to their people” are vested in each of us, providing spiritual sustenance just as surely as Noach provided sustenance for the occupants of the Ark. To be gathered to one’s people is not to die; it is to gain reputational immortality.
This is the only way I can otherwise explain why Avraham was also described as being “gathered to his people” when he died in Genesis 25:8. At the time he died, Avraham had no people! But every monotheistic faith came from him – he was the father of Judaism and Christianity and Islam and others. When he was “gathered to his people,” Avraham became vested in the future nations that claimed him as their forefather.
When Jacob died, he knew that he would be gathered to his people, that his life of choices was over but that his influence over the Jewish people would be eternal – we describe Jacob as a flame that never goes out. So when the text tells us (Gen 49:33) that Jacob was “gathered to his people,” it does so before Jacob was buried, before anyone even mourned. The instant that Jacob died, his life and his soul became vested in all of the Jewish people.
When it comes to Aharon and Moshe, G-d does not even tell them that they are going to die: instead He tells them that they will “be gathered to his people.” (Numbers 20:24, 31:2). At the end of the Torah (Deut. 32:50), G-d says to Moshe, “You shall die on the mountain that you are about to ascend, and shall be gathered to your kin, as your brother Aaron died on Mount Hor and was gathered to his kin.”
“Being Gathered” is not a threat. Being gathered to your people, achieving immortal influence over countless descendants, is actually a promise – a promise of love and satisfaction in a life well lived. It is an aspiration for us all.
All the meanings and power of this phrase is encompassed the last time the phrase is used in the Torah:
Moses charged us with the Torah, as the inheritance of the congregation of Jacob. Then He became King in Jeshurun when the heads of the people gathered: the tribes of Israel together. (Deut. 33:4-5)
The connection is multifaceted at this point. The “He” who became King in Jeshurun can refer to the previous nouns – Moses or Jacob – as well as to G-d, since Moses and Jacob are the core embodiments of Judaism. It is another timeless, invested promise of what happens when the nation gathers. When the heads of the people gathered, the unified nation at the receiving of the Torah becomes vested in all of the Jewish people for all time in the future.
In the Torah, “being gathered to one’s people” is no rhetorical device or euphemism. It is instead the highest form of praise, a statement that these few great men are more alive to us now than they were when their hearts were still beating.
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