Parshas Vayechi - A Soul Powered Life
“And Yaakov lived in the land of Egypt…” (Bereishis 47:28)
The saga of Yaakov Avinu takes up more space in the Torah than any of the other Avos. In Parshas Vayechi it finally comes to a close. This is the curtain call. The last seventeen years of Yaakov’s life are his most peaceful and now he returns his soul to its maker. We would expect the name of the parsha to be something that would express the theme of Yaakov Avinu’s death and yet this parsha is named Vayechi, and he lived. What are we supposed to learn from this seeming oxymoron? Could it be that there is a secret to life in death itself? The Gemara in Taanis (5b) tells us that Yaakov Avinu never died. What could the Gemara possibly mean? Isn’t it clear that our entire parsha is dedicated to the passing of Yaakov Avinu?
A soul powered life
Truth stands the test of time. When something is true it is always true. True love is unconditional and everlasting. If we wanted to know the authenticity of our love for another we shouldn’t examine at how we behave in the good times, when the conditions of the relationship are being met, but in the difficult times, when the relationship has seemingly fallen apart. A couple that survives the difficult times may have residual scars but they also have the confidence that their love is true. Sometimes it is precisely when all the conditions have disappeared that the most essential love rises to the surface. For example, if chas vishalom a husband is struck with a debilitating illness and is no longer capable of performing any service for his family, we will often see exceptional levels of devotion being shown to him by his family.
Life is true. Because life is true it is everlasting. It cannot die any more than salt can go bad. What we mistakenly call life is actually a condition known as alive. Alive is when the body borrows life from the soul (life itself). Because “alive” is not true, because it is only a condition, it can die. Life on the other hand is eternal. For Jews, the notion of life after death, of an ultimate resurrection of the dead, is not a far-fetched fantasy. It is simply the logical conclusion of our notion of life.
Chazal say that the righteous even in their deaths are called alive, while the wicked even in their lives are called dead. Some people know the truth of life. They live their lives in accordance with the values of life. We call this living a soul powered life. Others live a life that goes against the grain of life. They choose the finite over the infinite. They choose the momentary pleasure of the body over the infinite pleasure of the soul. It’s a fast food life as opposed to a fine dining life. And because they have chosen the body over the soul even while they are “alive” they are not connected to life itself. Their existence will never be anything more than temporary. The righteous live an organic life. A natural life. They understand that the soul is the essence of life and by following their divine mission they are tapped into life itself. While their existence may be temporary, their life is everlasting. While their body may have returned to dust, their soul continues on its journey. The wicked lead an inorganic, unnatural life. It is a life of spiritual obesity. They follow their narcissistic desires above all, eschewing the Godly mission for which they were created. They are the walking dead. They exist but that is all.
The Secret of Jewish Survival
Yaakov Avinu embodies life itself. His story takes up more space than any other in Sefer Bereishis. It was a life of turmoil. It was a life of pain. It was a life of confusion. But through all of the hardships he was truly alive. It is because Yaakov Avinu is the paradigmatic man of truth that life for him had to be led unconditionally. No matter how difficult his circumstances, truth demanded that he remain faithful to the mission for which he was created, Thus Yaakov Avinu was tapped into life itself. The Gamara in Taanis tells us that Yaakov Avinu never died. Most Rishonim don’t take this literally because the pesukim themselves tell us that Yaakov was embalmed in Mitzrayim. The clear implication here is not that Yaakov Avinu continues to roam the earth but rather that to describe Yaakov Avinu as dead would be incomprehensible. Someone who led such a profound soul powered life cannot be defined by the frailty of his body. The body is just a condition. The soul is life itself.
With this in mind we can now return to our original question. Why is it that the Parsha that revolves around the death of Yaakov Avinu is named Vayechi, and he lived? Until Yaakov Avinu died we did not truly understand how deeply connected he was to life itself. Just as the father with a terminal illness discovers the depth of love that he shares with his family when he is totally incapacitated, so too it is only when Yaakov dies that we see how deeply connected he is to life itself. In a person’s life it is difficult to know if they are merely alive or if they embody life itself. When all the conditions of Yaakov cease to exist we discovered how deeply connected he was to life itself. While Yaakov’s flame was extinguished somehow his light continued to shine eternally.
The truth of Yaakov’s life is seen throughout the generations in his descendants. As a nation we have lived through centuries of chaos and destruction. While there have been times where we were less than faithful, ultimately in some of the most trying circumstances it was our least faithful brothers and sisters that showed their true colors and were willing to sacrifice their lives to sanctify God’s name. The secret of the eternal nature of the Jew is that we never focused on temporary existence. Our existence was consistently in peril. It was precisely when we became comfortable with our existence that it was placed in jeopardy. Thus we never really had the opportunity to lead an existence oriented life. We have always focused on that which powered existence. The story behind the story. Life itself. This is the life and legacy of Yaakov Avinu. As his descendants may we merit to have the strength and fortitude to live the life he set out for us.