- All his sons and daughters sought to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted, saying, “No, I will go down mourning to my son in sheol.” Thus his father bewailed him.
This word, sheol, is often understood by Christians as referring to Hell (though why Jacob would be bound for Hell is not clear). And by Jews, “sheol” refers to burial, though why the word chosen is specifically “sheol” is also unclear.
I think there is a better understanding, and it comes directly from the Hebrew word itself. The letters for “sheol” are the letters that mean “question” in the text. For example:
I inquired (sheol) of her, ‘Whose daughter are you?’ (Gen. 24:47)
When the men of the place asked (sheol) him about his wife… (Gen. 26:7)
Jacob asked (sheol), “Pray tell me your name.” But he said, “You must not ask (sheol) my name!” And he took leave of him there.
All of these are asking about the identity of a person. But the word also is used to question the purpose or intentions of a person. For example:
And they said, “Let us call the girl and ask (sheol) for her reply.” (Gen. 24:57)
The man asked (sheol) him, “What are you looking for?” (Gen. 37:15)
Which suggests the following idea: what if the Jewish idea of a miserable death is one in which we are left with unanswered questions? A death in which our soul is left unsure of our own identity, purpose, or ultimate worth in the world?
Think of Jacob and Joseph. His son has died, and Jacob has to be asking himself question after question: “Was this my fault?” / “Why did I send him away?” / “What could or should I have done differently?” / “How could G-d have let this happen?!” ad infinitum – a hell while living, and even worse if unresolved before death.
Now that is a specific kind of horrible end to a life, to be left unsure of the reason or purpose for our existence, with deep and important questions, but no answers.
This also helps explain a verse much later in the Torah:
And now, O Israel, what does your G-d ask (sheol) of you? Only this: to perceive your God, to walk in all of his paths, to love [those paths], and to serve your God with all your heart and soul.
The question is not performative. It is not what G-d wants us to do, specifically. Or it would have used another word rather than this one. Instead, the question is about understanding our identity, our purpose, and our value in G-d’s eyes. G-d is asking us to understand who we are and what we aim to achieve – just as the word sheol is used in the Torah. We are meant to comprehend G-d and our relationship to Him, to see ourselves as imitating G-d and to love doing so.
Lastly, we are to understand that understanding our identity and purpose is not found through navel gazing, but instead through our actions, through what we do: serving G-d and connecting with Him. All from understanding the selection of that one word: sheol. And in so doing, we can avoid the fate that Jacob feared worse than death.
[an @iwe and @eliyahumasinter work]