Judaism: Vayechi: Living Life
Shira SmilesShira Smiles is a sought-after international lecturer, popular seminary teacher and experienced curriculum developer. A well-respected former Los Angeles teacher, she now lives in Israel, where she teaches at Darchei Bina Seminary and leads a number of women's study groups. Shira also trains Torah teachers in special workshops all over the world.
Life coaches, especially spiritual mentors, sometimes give their students an exercise to write their own epitaphs or eulogies. The purpose of the exercise is to have the student focus on his goal in life, to clarify what is important for him and how he wants to be remembered.
In this context, perhaps we can gain some insight into what otherwise appears to be a superfluous and redundant first verse in this parsha: “Jacob lived in the land of Egypt seventeen years; and the days of Jacob - the years of his life – was one hundred forty seven years.” In addition to the grammatical incongruity, the years of Yaakov’s life can already be ascertained through previous information. What new lessons is this verse teaching us about Yaakov and about ourselves? How should individual days add up to full years?
Rav Wolfson presents a wonderful analogy to explain the concept of “each day” that eventually comprises the portfolio of one’s life. Imagine, he says, that each day you are presented with a new, blank canvas upon which you will paint that entire day. At the end of the day, that canvas will ascend to heaven and a new canvas will descend the following morning. However, there are times you can review and edit that canvas. Each night before reciting Shema, at the end of each month before the new moon, even at the end of every year we still have the opportunity to correct those canvases.
Rav Gifter, Rav Sternbach, Rav Moshe all point out that a tzadik such as Yaakov lives each day meaningfully, focused on fostering an ever closer relationship with Hakodosh Boruch Hu. This focus does not change no matter what circumstances he finds himself in. Each day is singular, although they add up to years. Therefore, whether Yaakov found himself almost persecuted by Lavan, or running away from Esau, or living a comfortable life in Egypt, there was always one and the same focus, and Yaakov grew from each experience.
Rav Yosef Dohan in Marvidei Chen cites the Saba of Kelm in explaining that the challenges Yaakov faced, and indeed that we all face, are really catalysts for growth. While Yaakov had hoped to live his life in tranquility when he returned from Lavan’s house, that was not to be. The tragedies of Dinah and of Yosef befell him. But it was through his specific challenges that Yaakov, as did Avraham Avinu before him, grew to fit into the mantle of being a patriarch of the family that was to spread monotheism through the world and retain that identity even in the decadent Egyptian culture.
As Rabbi Rosenblatt points out in Finding Light in the Darkness, rising to meet the challenges Hashem presents us with (and according to the meforshim, they are indeed presents) forces us to rise above them and grow. The pain, says Rabbi Rosenblatt, is temporary; the results are eternal.
Rabbi Schwab brings us back to the first word of the parsha, vayechi, and he lived. He points out that during these seventeen years, Yaakov actually lived life, as opposed to the description of the previous years that he gives to Pharaoh, “The days of my sojourn … have been few and bad …,” for now he considered even those days good.
What made them good was not the physical comfort Yaakov now found himself in in Egypt, but rather his glimpse into olam habo, of the true, eternal life when all would be revealed. Yaakov could now look back on all his troubles and challenges and see how each was a necessary step in realizing the Divine plan and his exalted position in that plan, how each difficulty was presented toward an exalted purpose and was therefore all good.
But, as Rav Gifter points out, the life being externally less difficult does not mean that there were no challenges involved. A life of ease presents challenges of its own, and we must learn how to flourish spiritually in exile. That’s why Yaakov sent Yehudah before him to set up a house for Torah study. Take each situation, says Rav Leibele Eiger, the Toras Emes, and utilize it for growth.
Yaakov wanted to stay in Eretz Yisroel, but Hashem told him to go down to Egypt, for that was where he needed to grow. And Yaakov cancelled his own ego to follow Hashem’s command, for living in Egypt now became his challenge. As Rabbi Rosenblatt points out, “Circumstances may be fluid, but challenge is a constant – the purpose behind all events in life.”
Rabbi Bick in Chayei Moshe tries to shed some light on Yaakov’s challenge in Mitzrayim as the culmination of all his previous challenges. He cites the Sefas Emes and points to Yaakov’s defining characteristic, emes, truth. Truth is also the defining characteristic of Torah. Neither Torah nor truth can be changed based on circumstances. They must remain constant in every time and in every place. Therefore it was necessary for Yaakov to leave Eretz Yisroel, to go to a foreign land, and establish the truth of Torah everywhere.
As the Or Gedaliah points out, the truth of Torah, of Toras Chaim, the living and life sustaining Torah, can be compared to mayim chaim, living waters that flow constantly, for if they stop flowing, they can no longer be considered “living”. The quality of the water must remain the same, fresh and pure, wherever it flows, just as the Torah must retain its truth and immutability. We cannot bottle the Torah to fit particular circumstances in strange lands, changing the content along the way.
Indeed, the Lubavitcher Rebbe points out in In the Garden of Torah that Yaakov’s life actually reached its pinnacle in Egypt, that his life took on full meaning in Egypt. Until now, he and his children studied Torah in the halls of study. Now they were forced out of those cloistered surrounding into the darkness of Egypt to spread the light of Torah by actually living its precepts daily, not just knowing them intellectually.
A Torah Jew is one who not only studies Torah but also incorporates Torah in his interactions with others and into his personal manners, who lets Torah inform every aspect of his life.
This is what Yaakov Avinu did in Egypt, continues the Lubavitcher Rebbe. He established Torah in the land before he arrived, he brought his children and grandchildren to study with him, and then they all lived their lives illuminated by Torah. Although Yaakov dies in this parsha, he lives on through the legacy he imparted to all generations that followed by teaching us how to live our lives not only in Eretz Yisroel but in every land into which our exile would bring us.
This first verse, although it is speaking of Yaakov Avinu, is the paradigm for our own lives, says the Netivot Shalom. Just as Yaakov descended from the holy land of Israel to the decadent land of Egypt, so too did our individual souls descend from the spiritual realm to the physical realm. But just as Yaakov lived a full Torah life in Egypt, in Mitzrayim, so must we too rein in the physical lures of this world and remain focused on living as Torah Jews. We have our own challenges, our own narrow constricting situations, our own maitzorim, but we too must keep Torah central to the way we live our lives, not just as an intellectual pursuit.
Yaakov was our model. Wherever he was on any given day, vayehi, on that day he lived with his focus on the Ribbonoh shel Olam and the precepts of Torah.
Yaakov now understood and “saw” Hashem’s plan, and he wanted to share this knowledge with his children so that they too would experience tranquility during their long and arduous exiles, the Sifsei Chaim, Rabbi Friedlander, tells us. But Hashem “closed Yaakov’s eyes” and prevented him from revealing this final truth.
Yaakov thought this knowledge would enable Bnei Yisroel to better serve Hashem, but Hashem thought otherwise. Our relationship with Hashem must be based on emunah, on trust, so Hashem permitted Yaakov to teach us that there is a purpose in every moment of our lives, whether in darkness or in joy, but he did not allow him to reveal what that purpose was. He taught us that there is a big picture, even if he could not show us that picture. Therefore, says Halekach Vehalebuv, we cover our eyes when we affirm our faith in Hashem by reciting the Shema, for we retain our faith even if we don’t have the answers.
Yaakov finally lived, vayechi, in tranquility, for he now understood that the singular focus of each day of his life, the vayehi, had meaning as he himself had sought to invest meaning into each day of his life. Similarly, as we go about our daily routines, as we fill the canvas of the big picture of life, even as we face our own challenging and difficult times , may we find the tranquility within ourselves to trust in the purpose that Hashem will reveal to us in the future.