Rabbi O’s Weekly Parsha: Vayechi (Genesis 47:28-50:26)How Do You Fly? “

Mario Zacchini, Sensational Human Cannonball, Dies at 87” was the headline of New York Times obituary for the last survivor of an era of men whose livelihood consisted of being propelled from a cannon across a circus tent into a net. He once said, “flying isn’t the hard part; landing in the net is.” Some people view life in the same way. It doesn’t really matter how you got there; the main thing is where you land—where you end up. Is there a Jewish source that relates to Zachchini’s idea?
Each week we read a different section of the Torah. In the actual Torah scroll, there is a long space at the end of each weekly section, but this week is an exception; it’s attached (i.e., there is not a space) to the previous section and begins with the final seventeen years of Jacob’s life.
Until this point, he had a very hard life. His twin brother tried to kill him and was a constant threat. His father-in-law exploited him. His only daughter was abducted. Finally, he was told his beloved son, Joseph, was dead. That reality remained for 22 years, at which point he discovered that Joseph was alive and living in Egypt. Now, finally, at the end of his life, Jacob was able for the first time to live a serene and tranquil existence.
But how does this explain this section being attached to the previous one? What is there about the last seventeen years of Jacob’s life that connects them to the previous years? Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888; Frankfurt) puts these last years in perspective. Although they were the only ones that allowed Jacob to have a quiet and undisturbed life, they were insignificant when contrasted with his years of struggle and therefore they are less important for us.
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.
His final years might have been a rewarding conclusion, but they weren’t his legacy. Jacob’s real life consisted of challenges and the resulting sense of accomplishment of knowing his real-life confrontations never caused him to alter his character. 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 didn’t take revenge when his father-in-law deceived him. He didn’t shirk his parental responsibility, even if when meant rebuking two of his adult sons for their impetuous and violent reaction to their sister’s abduction. He never succumbed to the corruption and debauchery of people in whose midst he lived and never forgot where he came from. He always remained loyal to his family and people. Being a Jew means remembering where you came from and, no matter what, remaining loyal that past and using it as a model for the future.  
Jacob’s life serves not only as a model but also as an inspiration for anyone who wants to take control of their life rather letting life’s circumstances control them. We don’t have a choice of what life will throw in our way, but we do have the choice of how we will react. Life sometimes puts us in situations we can’t walk away from but that doesn’t mean we need to lower ourselves to the unacceptable environment in which we find ourselves. Jacob serves as our prototype for not allowing life’s challenges to modify our behavior. Sickness, special needs children, and failed marriages are just some of the reasons things didn’t work out as expected but, like Jacob, that doesn’t have to ruin who we are and what we stand for.
What advice might we give to someone living in a less than optimal situation? The most important element is having clarity in what you are 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 either of them and we, his decedents, have had to live through great challenges. Persecutions, expulsions, pogroms, discrimination, and bearing the brunt of hatred might be the reality of the diaspora Jew, but we have remained true to our Jewish identity throughout it all. The final seventeen years of Jacob’s life might have been peaceful, but they are not his legacy. Decades of remaining focused on his core values, and having integrity to that commitment NO MATTER WHAT, is the greatest bequest he has given us.
When the matriarch Sara’s died, 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 give to future generations. From a Jewish perspective, neither Jacob nor Sara died.
“Flying isn’t the hard part; landing in the net is,” might be true for human cannon balls, but not for one’s existence. In life, where you land isn’t as important as what you do when you fly.
What are the things in your life for which you want to be remembered? What are the things that neither poverty nor sickness, wealth nor great health, will 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 the legacy of an individual who remained focused while flying through the challenges of life. What keeps you focused when you’re flying? What do you want to be remembered for?
Good Shabbos