To Exist or to Live, That is the Question (Vayechi)

And Jacob lived 17 years in the land of Egypt.

This is how this week's portion begins. It's name, Vayechi, means, and he lived.

A midrash teaches that this opening verse signifies so much more than the fact that Jacob lived for 17 years in Egypt after of course traveling there to reunite with his son Joseph. Jacob's life, perhaps more than any other in the Torah, was filled with struggle and pain. It started in his mother's womb, continued when he ran away from home after stealing Esau's blessing and tricking his father, Isaac, continuing when he had to work for Lavan for over 20 years, continuing when he thought his favorite son Joseph was dead, and continuing further when there was a horrible famine in the land. This verse teaches us that through it all, vayechi - Jacob found blessing and meaning ... he lived.

Just after running away from home, Jacob slept on a rock and woke up exclaiming, God was in this place and I did not know. This first verse of Veychi hearkens back to Jacob's exhortation, as we realize that this was not just a momementary epiphany that Jacob experienced in his early years, but rather a profound life-lesson that he carried with him for the rest of his days.

Further along in this portion, Jacob tells his sons, I don't want to be buried here in Egypt. This is not my land. After I die, I want you to take me back to the cemetery where my parents and grandparents were buried. Jacob is buried in the Cave of Machpelah, the same cave that Abraham bought to bury Sarah.

And so, Jacob's life ends where it began, in Canaan. This end of this portion thus sets up the narrative for our people's future subjugation in Egypt, after which we will be returned to our land: to the land where our ancestors are buried. Vayechi portion begins with life, and whereas it ends in the death of Jacob, its message of hope is life affirming. Because if Jacob can live a full, blessed life given his many troubling experiences and encounters, can we not do the same?

Jacob's life gives us strength, even as we enter into the dark historical period of Exodus. Jacob gives us strength just as our Torah gives us strength. Tomorrow morning, when Max chants his final alliyah from this final portion of Genesis, we will all stand and say together, Chazak Chazak, V'nitchazek. May the Torah give us strength, and may we too learn from how to live.

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