The 147 years of Yaakov’s life can be divided, the Lubavitcher Rebbe notes, into three general periods:
a) The first 77 years of his life were spent in the Holy Land, secluded in “the tents of study” and sheltered from the entanglements of material life.
b) These were followed by 20 years in Charan in the employ of Lavan, during which Yaakov married, fathered 12 of his 13 children, and amassed much material wealth.
c) Following a further period in the Holy Land, Yaakov “descended” to Egypt, where he lived for the last 17 years of his life.
The years that Yaakov dwelled in the Holy Land were years of tranquil perfection—years in which nothing alien to his soul intruded upon his life of Torah study, prayer, and service of G‑d.
In contrast, Yaakov’s sojourn in Charan was characterized by challenge and struggle. In Charan, Yaakov locked horns with “Lavan the Deceiver” and bested him at his own game. To marry and support his family, he worked to exhaustion as “heat consumed me by day, and frost at night; and sleep was banished from my eyes” (Bereishis 31:40). In the words of Esav’s angel to Yaakov upon Yaakov’s return from Charan, “You have struggled with G‑d and with men, and have prevailed” (32:29).
These, however, were struggles in which Yaakov held his own, and in which he eventually triumphed. But in the 17 years he lived in Egypt, Yaakov experienced, for the first time in his life, a state of true galus—subjugation to an alien environment. In Egypt, Yaakov was compelled to pay homage to Pharaoh, the arch-idol and demigod of the land (see Bereishis 47:7–10). Upon Yaakov’s passing in Egypt, his body was in the possession of the Egyptian “physicians” for 40 days, who embalmed it according to their custom. Indeed, one of the reasons Yaakov commanded Yosef to bury him in the Holy Land (a feat which required much maneuvering and manipulation to secure Pharaoh’s consent) was that he feared that, in Egypt, his body and gravesite would become an object of idolatry.
After a lifetime in which he either inhabited his own sanctum of hermetic holiness or struggled against adversity, Yaakov’s Egyptian years were a time of subjugation to a society which the Torah calls “the depravity of the earth.”
And yet, the Torah regards these 17 years as the very best years of Yaakov’s life! For Yaakov knew to exploit his galus in Egypt to drive the strivings of his soul and further its aims. Indeed it was in Egypt, under the rule and subsequent enslavement of the Pharaohs, that Yaakov’s descendants were forged into the People of Israel.
“Everything that happened to the Patriarchs,” writes Ramban in his commentary on Bereishis, “is a signpost for their children. This is why the Torah elaborates its account of their journeys, their well-digging, and the other events [of their lives] . . . these all come as an instruction for the future: for when something happens to one of the three Patriarchs, one understands from it what is decreed to occur to his descendants.”
For we, too, experience in the course of our lifetimes the three states of being which Yaakov knew: sovereignty, struggle, and subjugation.
We each harbor a vision of a transcendent self—of a soul, pure and inviolable, at the core of our being. This self, we are convinced, is not subject to the caprice of circumstance, remaining forever aloof from the shifting dictates of society and convention. And though this core self is not always accessible to us, there come moments in our lives—“moments of truth,” we call them—in which it asserts its will over every and any influence save its own internal truth.
But these moments, for most of us, are few and far between. More often, we are in a state of struggle—struggles with our environment, struggles with our own habits and behavior patterns, and struggles with the passions of our divided hearts.
A state of struggle indicates that we have not attained full mastery over our existence; but it is also a sign that we are free. We are resisting the forces that seek to sway us from our internal truth; we are engaging them and battling them. Indeed, this is life at its fullest and most productive—even more so, in a certain sense, than those “moments of truth” of resolute perfection.
But we also know times of powerlessness and subordination: times when we are faced with circumstances which we have neither the ability to control nor to even resist; times when it seems that life has been stopped dead in its tracks, arrested by an impregnable wall of helplessness and despair.
“Everything that happened to the Patriarchs . . . is decreed to occur to their descendants.” Not that they occur in exactly the same manner. Our own moments of transcendence seem fleeting and inconsequential in comparison with Yaakov’s decades of tranquil perfection in the Holy Land; our own struggles seem wan and inept when measured against Yaakov’s Charan years; our own lives under circumstances of subjugation and oppression seem black indeed when set against Yaakov’s Egyptian period. Yet the three lives of Yaakov are “signposts” that guide, inspire, and enable our own.
Yaakov’s life in the Holy Land empowers us to experience moments of true freedom—moments in which we assert our true will over all forces, both external and internal, that seek to quell it.
Yaakov’s Charan years inspire and enable us to not only persevere in our struggles, but to revel in them—to experience them as vibrant and exhilarating periods in our lives.
And Yaakov’s Egyptian period teaches us how to deal with those situations in which we feel overpowered by forces beyond our control. It teaches us that these times, too, are part and parcel of our lives; that these times, too, can be negotiated with wisdom, dignity, and integrity; and that these times, too, can be realized as vital and productive seasons of our lives.
Based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, zt’l; adapted by Yanki Tauber. Courtesy of MeaningfulLife.com via Chabad.org. Find more Torah articles for the whole family at www.chabad.org/parshah.