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Parshas Vayechi – Truly Living

By: Rav Dov Lipman

Throughout the book of Beraishis we have seen the Torah preface the deaths of our forefathers by relating their age at the time of their deaths.  Thus, when the middle of the first verse in this week’s Parsha states “…and the days of Yaakov the years of his life were one hundred forty-seven years,” we are prepared to hear about Yaakov’s imminent death.  Instead, however, over fifty verses continue relating a variety of events that occur before Yaakov.actually dies. Why, then, does the Torah “tease” us with the description of the total years of Yaakov’s life significantly before the death actually takes place?

Parshiyos in the Torah are always separated by breaks in the Torah with open space.  The one exception is the beginning of Parshas Vayechi.  There is no break at all and there is no indication that a new Parsha is beginning.  Why?

Rashi quotes two explanations from the Midrash Rabbah.  One approach suggests that the “closed” beginning of the Parsha conveys the fact that following Yaakov’s death, the eyes and hearts of the Jews were “closed” by the onset of subjugation to the Egyptians.  The second explanation teaches that Yaakov wanted to reveal the time for the ultimate redemption but it was “closed” from him, making this revelation impossible. 

The Kli Yakar questions where the Midrash sees a hint to either of these approaches from the words of the Torah, itself.  He explains that the intent of not having any space between the end of the last Parsha and the beginning of this one is to show a flow and connection between these two parshiot.  Parshas Vayigash concluded with the words, “And Israel sat in the land of Egypt in the land of Goshen and they had a hold on it and they were fruitful and multiplied a lot.”  That should be read with the direct continuation of “And Yaakov lived in the land of Egypt for seventeen years…” which opens this week’s Parsha.

This segue can be understood in several ways.  One approach sees the first verse of this week’s Parsha as explaining the reason for what was stated in last week’s.  Why did the Jews have great success in Egypt?  Because Yaakov Avinu was alive.  That implies that things turned for the worse after he died, hence this message being learned from the Parsha being “closed.”  This explains Rashi’s first approach.

Rashi’s second understanding is a bit more complicated.  The Kli Yakar suggests that the words “Vayechi Yaakov” imply that Yaakov was alive but his spirit was no longer alive.  Upon Yaakov’s arrival in Egypt, G-d removed His presence from him.  Why did He do so?  Yaakov mentioned after his reunion with Yosef that “now I can die…”  G-d knew that before his death, Yaakov would bless his sons and reveal to them the time for the final redemption. G-d, therefore, removed His presence from Yaakov, thus preventing him from tapping into the prophecy which would reveal the time for the redemption.  Why would it have been so harmful for the time of the redemption to be revealed?  Commentaries explain that if this time would be known, people who knew the redemption would not come during their lifetimes would become comfortable in exile.  This, in turn, would make them vulnerable to the negative influences of foreign cultures and would hurt them spiritually.  In actuality, the first generations in Egypt which knew that they would not be redeemed from Egypt during their lifetimes became comfortable in Egypt.  How do we know this?  From the end of last week’s Parsha where the comfort they felt was clearly evident in the fact that they “took hold of it” referring to their connection to the land.  Without any pause or break the Torah records the consequence of their feeling so comfortable - “And Yaakov lived” indicating that his spirit was no longer alive.  It had to be removed to insure that he would not reveal the time of the redemption thereby continuing the flaw exhibited by that generation.

Rav Hirsch has a meaningful approach to explain the “closed” Parsha.  He explains that a person could be misled to think that the last seventeen years of Yaakov’s life were the glory years and the time when he could finally live life as it should be lived.  If that were the case, it would certainly warrant a break in the Torah separating this new life from his old life.  However, this is not the case.  In Rav Hirsch’s words:

“But it was rather the troubled years of his life, in which the test had to be gone through, in the midst of the bitterest fate of a Jacob to be worthy of acquiring the name Israel, that were those in which Jacob won his everlasting national importance to which the seventeen years that follow here form just the happy rewarding conclusion.”  

Using the explanations of the Kli Yakar and Rav Hirsch, we find the answer to our original question regarding the words usually associated with death being used significantly before Yaakov’s death actually occurred.  According to the Kli Yakar who says the verse is telling us that Yaakov lost his close connection to G-d, this certainly meant the conclusion of Yaakov’s more meaningful and spiritual years.  While Yaakov certainly continued to live meaningful years, compared to what had been before, he was dead.

According to Rav Hirsch, these last years were without challenges which lead to growth.  Once, again, in Torah terms this can be equated with death.  As Rav Hirsch puts it, it was a “rewarding conclusion” but it wasn’t truly living with all of the challenges and growth which come through experiencing the challenges of real life.  Thus, the Torah sums up Yaakov’s life at this point in connection with those last seventeen years during which he was not truly alive in Torah terms.     

The message from all of the above is very clear.  Life is not measured by the number of years in which we are granted physical life.  Rather, the measure relates to growth and spirituality.  When Yaakov was no longer growing through challenges and was no longer as connected to G-d spiritually, this marked the end of his meaningful life.  We must all  ask ourselves: Are we connected spiritually?  Are we growing through life’s challenges?  Are we truly alive?