Early on in the Talmudic tractate of Taanit, Rabbi Yitzchak causes a bit of stir when, in the name of Rabbi Yochanan, he declares: “Jacob our father did not die.”
Rav Nachman rejects the idea with a sharp retort, asking: “Was it then for nothing that they mourned Jacob and the embalmers embalmed him and the grave-diggers buried him?”
Most rabbinic commentators essentially end up siding with Rav Nachman, albeit more politely, by treating Rabbi Yitzchak’s comment metaphorically, as some sort of moral teaching about the righteous living on through our memories of their good deeds. But what if we were to take the comment literally?
The first question we might ask is, “If Jacob never died, then where exactly has he been all these years?”
Of course, for those of us with a standing appointment Tuesday nights, one potential answer is obvious: He’s living on a mysterious island somewhere in the South Pacific, fishing, weaving and spending the rest of his days saving the world by keeping a satanic smoke monster all bottled up.
No, that’s not from Rashi. It’s a reference to “Lost,” ABC’s groundbreaking show about a plane that crashes on the weirdest, not-so-deserted island you could imagine, the keeper of which is an enigmatic, ancient but young-looking man (we think he’s human, or at least used to be) named Jacob. That smoky thing? Might just be his brother — meaning, like his biblical counterpart, “Lost” Jacob has serious sibling rivalry issues. And did we mention that the series is shaping up to be primarily about his search for a replacement? The leading candidate: a plane-crash survivor named … wait for it … Jack Shephard. (Jacob the shepherd, get it?)
OK. OK. It’s a stretch. Yes, the creators of “Lost” clearly want us chewing on the biblical reference. But they have had us chewing on plenty of unrelated references since the beginning. With just one episode and the 2 1/2-hour finale May 23 left by the time you read this, it seems increasingly clear that they have no plans (thank goodness) to offer up a unifying theory for the show as an exact metaphor for some other literary or religious work.
So why dwell on the Jacob thing? Because the parallel holds — not so much between the two Jacobs themselves but the experience of pondering them.
For Losties (think Trekkies, but cooler), watching the show is an exercise in probing a mix of literary, religious and philosophical allusions, wrestling with existential and moral questions, and, of course, enjoying great storytelling about compelling characters. It’s not much different from studying Torah — an experience marked by depth, meaning and intrigue, once you get the hang of it.
Don’t believe me?
Next Tuesday night will be the last one with a new episode of “Lost” (the finale is airing the following Sunday). An hour or two later, many synagogues will be marking the holiday of Shavuot with Torah study throughout the night.
What Jack wouldn’t give for a sign like that. So check out a shul near you.
You’re going to need something to do when “Lost” ends.
(Ami Eden is editor in chief of JTA. If this column no longer makes sense after the May 11 episode “Across the Sea,” just pretend you’re reading it in a “Lost”-style flashback.)