There is significance to how the Torah is broken up into the sections we read each week. The name of the Parsha (weekly section) is usually the first word (or can be found in the first few words) of any given Parsha. This week’s reading is Yayechi-“he lived;” it is the first word (in the original Hebrew) of the following verse.
And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt for seventeen years, and Jacob’s days, the years of his life, were a hundred and forty-seven years. (47:28)
Jacob at last “lived” during the final seventeen years of his life. Many commentators point out that (in context) the Torah’s standard terminology is settled or dwelt; why does it say lived? It was primarily during these latter seventeen years of his life that Jacob, who had endured so much suffering, can be described as having lived. He had a very hard life. His twin brother fought him at every juncture, his wicked father-in-law, Lavon, exploited him, Dinah, Jacob’s daughter was abducted, then he lost Joseph. Now, finally, at the end of his life, Jacob was able for the first time to live a serene and tranquil existence.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) points out that although these years were the only ones to give Jacob a quiet, undisturbed life, they were insignificant when contrasted with his legacy-and therefore they were less important for us as a nation.
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.
The most important years of Jacob’s life were those in which he had to learn to deal with life on life’s terms. The character trait most identified with Jacob is integrity. He never took revenge when his father-in-law deceived him, he rebuked his sons Shimon and Levi for their impetuous and violent reaction to their sister’s abduction. He never fell into the trap of acting like the charlatans in whose environs he was forced to live. His life is so inspirational to us because of how he dealt with what he had. The only way to live that kind of life is to have clarity in what one is living for. Jacob understood the magnitude of the task bequeathed to him by his father (Isaac) and grandfather (Abraham). His life had more challenges than his father or grandfather and we, his decedents, have had to live through persecutions, expulsions, pogroms, discrimination, and bear the brunt of hatred but we remained true to our Jewish identity throughout it all. The final seventeen years of his life might have been peaceful but they are not his legacy. Decades of blood, sweat, and tears resulting from his commitment to his being true to himself and his Jewish mission are his bequest.
We seek lives of comfort, both emotionally and physically, and get frustrated when things don’t go our way but it is precisely at those times that we are creating our spiritual legacy. Theodore Roosevelt brought this point home in a speech in made in 1910 at the Sorbonne, in Paris.
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
The choice to be in the arena rather than be a spectator can only be made by one who believes in something because without strong belief in your cause, why endure hardship for it? Your cause might not be Judaism or G-d, but if you don’t believe in something, you have nothing to fight for-nothing significant to live or die for. When the matriarch Sara’s death was discussed, the Torah called it the “life” of Sara. The Talmud says that the righteous continue to live on after death because of the example they have given and the spiritual legacy they have bequeathed to future generations. From a Jewish perspective, neither Jacob nor Sara died.
What’s your legacy? What are the things in life you want those who know you to say, “this was his life” or “this washer life?” What are the things that neither poverty nor sickness would cause you to veer from your path? Years ago, I read a story about a Sephardic Jew who requested to be buried with his desk. When his children asked him why, he said that he never deceived, cheated, or misrepresented himself in his business dealings and that his desk would testify to his integrity. That’s a legacy. What will yours be? What are you willing to make yourself uncomfortable for?
(Sources: The Call of the Torah; The Pentateuch, translation and commentary by Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch)
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