By Rabbi Yossy Goldman
And Jacob lived . . .
A title usually reflects the theme of the subject matter. “Genesis” is about the beginning of the world; “Exodus” is about the Jews’ leaving Egypt. Whether of a book or a film, the title should convey some idea of the content under discussion.
Which is why the title of this week’s parashah seems highly inappropriate. “Vayechi—And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt 17 years” is the opening line of the very parashah which goes on to tell us not about Jacob’s life, but rather about his death—and his last will and testament, and his funeral, and his subsequent interment in Hebron in the Holy Land.
Why would a parashah that focuses on a person’s last days on earth, his deathbed instructions, and his burial be entitled Vayechi—And he lived?
The answer, say our sages, is that we are not discussing biological organisms, but Jews. And the test of true life for a Jew is whether he lived an authentic, consistent Jewish life—for life. Did he falter before the finish line, or was he faithful to his value system until the end? How do we know that Jacob did indeed live in the fullest sense of the word? That his was a genuine, dedicated G‑dly life? When he remained true to those cherished ideals until his dying day. Only then can we say with certainty that his life was really alive; that his was a “Vayechi existence” as it was meant to be. So the fact that Jacob died a righteous man validated his entire being and endowed his life with its richest blessing—true life, genuine, alive, and real from beginning to end.
There are individuals who have their eight minutes of fame, who shine briefly and impress the world, only to fade away and leave us disappointed, watching so much unfulfilled potential dissipate into thin air. Others are longer-lasting but don’t quite go all the way. Like the Kohen Gadol Yochanan who served as high priest for 80 years and then went off the rails. Very scary stuff! No wonder Hillel, in Pirkei Avos (Chapter 2), warns us not to trust ourselves morally until the day we die.
Complacency is dangerous. There are no guarantees. One must constantly “live,” that is, grow and attempt to improve oneself, lest he falter before finishing the game.
I remember my experience with a very fine man who was remarkably loyal to the company he worked for. For 45 years he was with the same group, totally and absolutely dedicated. Then he reached the age of compulsory retirement. Suddenly he took ill. The doctors had no real diagnosis. But he got sicker and sicker until he became incapacitated and eventually died. To this day, nobody knows what he died from. But those who knew him well understood that once he left the workplace to which he had devoted his entire adult life, he had nothing left to live for. Sadly, he had few other interests. His work was his life, and without work there was no life left.
It is psychologically sound to take up a hobby, learn to play golf, or develop other interests outside of work. A Jew, though, should ideally start studying Torah. Go to classes, read a stimulating book. Studying and sharpening the mind is good for the brain. Recent medical research confirms that it can even delay the onset of Alzheimer’s. Most importantly, a person must have something to live for. Find new areas of stimulation. Discover, dream, aspire higher. Life must be lived with purpose and vigor.
That’s why at the end of this week’s parashah, which also concludes the Book of Genesis, the congregation and Torah reader will exclaim “Chazak, chazak, v’nizchazek”—“Be strong, be strong, and we will all be strengthened.” Because the tendency when we finish a book is to take a breather before we pick up the next one. Even if it’s not War and Peace but a trashy novel, such is human nature. But a book of the Torah is not just any book. G‑d’s wisdom is not a cheap read. Torah is not just history or biography. Torah is our source of life, and we dare not ever take a breather from life. Chazak energizes us to carry on immediately. And so we do. The very same afternoon we open the Book of Exodus and continue the learning cycle without interruption.
Truth is consistent, from beginning to end. May our lives be blessed to be truly alive—with authenticity, faithfulness, and eternal fulfillment. Amen.
Rabbi Yossy Goldman was born in Brooklyn and was sent in 1976 by the Lubavitcher Rebbe as an emissary to serve the Jewish community of Johannesburg, South Africa. He is Senior Rabbi of the Sydenham Shul and president of the South African Rabbinical Association. His sefer “From Where I Stand: Life Messages from the Weekly Torah Reading” was published by Ktav and is available at Jewish book shops or online at www.ktav.com.