This Week's Torah Portion: Did Jacob Live a Happy Life?

Dëvar Torah – Parashath VeYëchi (Genesis LVII, 28-L, 26)

Vayëchi Ya‘aqov bë’eretz Mitzrayim shëva‘ ‘esré shana vayëhi yëmei Ya‘aqov shënei chayyyav sheva‘ shanim vë’arba‘im umë’ath shana.

“And Ya‘aqov lived in the land of Egypt seventeen years; and the days of Ya‘aqov, the days of his life, were seven years and forty and a hundred years.” (XLVII, 28).

The Nëtziv, in his Ha‘améq Davar, notes that the first clause of the above verse seems superfluous. After all, we already know from last week’s parasha (XLVII, 9) that Ya‘aqov was 130 years old when he arrived in Egypt; the knowledge that he died at the age of 147 in Egypt makes it a matter of simple calculation that his sojourn there lasted seventeen years.

The Nëtziv therefore concludes:

(H)e was living a good and proper life such as he had not been accustomed to in Eretz Yisra’él.

The Nëtziv’s conclusion is supported by the language of Genesis XLVII, 9. In response to Pharaoh’s inquiry concerning his age, Ya‘aqov said:

Yëmei shënei mëgurai shëloshim umë’ath shana, më‘at vëra‘im hayu yëmei shënei chayyai. (“The days of the years of my life are thirty and a hundred years; few and bad have been the days of the years of my life.”)

The Sforno picks up on the contrasting terms mëgurai and chayyai (both translated “my life”) as signifying:

[T]he years of my chayyim have been few and bad from so much worry over food and events, for the days in which a man is in trouble are not called “years of chayyim but rather mëgurim.”

Thus, our verse’s confident assertion vayëchi Ya‘aqov (and not vayagor), according to the Sforno, that at least the last seventeen years of Ya‘aqov’s life were chayyim tovim umëthuqqanim, “a good and proper life.”

The problem with the above interpretation is that it seems to be contradicted by Oral Torah sources.

The last verse in last week’s parasha reads, in part: Vayéshev Yisra’él bë’eretz Mitzrayim (“And Israel settled in the land of Egypt”). The Talmud (Sanhedrin 106a) cites this verse in support of Rabbi Yochanan’s pronouncement: “Every place in which vayéshev is said, it is none other than a term of sorrow.” The passage goes on to explain the nature of the sorrow by citing the second verse in our parasha: Vayiqrëvu yëmei Yisra’él lamuth (“And the days of Israel to die approached”).

Rashi ad loc. quotes the midrash in explanation of the peculiarity that our parasha is sëthuma, (literallyclosed”) i.e. not separated by a space from the foregoing parasha in the séfer Torah. This indicated “that when Ya‘aqov our father passed away, Israel’s eyes and heart were closed to the woe of the enslavement, for [the Egyptians] had begun to enslave them.”

The beginning of the process of enslavement began when the ordinary Israelite allowed himself to be disarmed by the welcoming siren call of Egypt’s hedonistic assimilationist civilization such that he began to think of himself as an “Israelite Egyptian” — an Egyptian of Israelitic heritage, as opposed to an “Egyptian Israelite,” an Israelite who was simply resident in Egypt. The former implies a much stronger degree of acculturation, of “settling in,” as implied by the verb vayéshev. The order of the verses suggests that the process began in Ya‘aqov’s lifetime.

Another indication that this is so is the Ba‘al haTurim’s assertion in the name of our Sages that the phrase vayëhi yëmei in our first verse means that the person referenced (in this case, Ya‘aqov) did not attain the same age as his forefathers. This is bolstered by a midrash which both he and Rashi cite which reaches a similar conclusion from the usage of “approaching to die,” also in our verse.

Indeed, Ya‘aqov did die younger than his father (Yitzchaq, who reached 180) and his grandfather (Avraham, who died at 175). The Ba‘al haTurim also notes the peculiar and uncharacteristic word-order in enumerating Ya‘aqov’s age, in which the smallest figure, seven, appears first (unlike the case of Avraham (cf. XV, 7) or Yitzchaq (XXXV, 28) as another indication that “his days were few and bad.”

H0w can we reconcile these two opinions?

The Talmud Yërushalmi (Këthubboth XII, 3; cf. also Kil’ayim VIII, 3) tells us that in the eulogy which was said for Rabbi Yëhuda haNasi, head of the Jewish community of Eretz Yisra’él during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, the last years of his life were compared to those of Ya‘aqov:

“And Ya‘aqov lived in the land of Egypt seventeen years,” and Yëhuda lived in Tzipporin [the Galilaean town in which he ended his life] seventeen years.

These last years of his life were by no means a picnic. The passage goes on to tell us that for thirteen of those seventeen years, he suffered from intense pain in his teeth. Rabbi Yëhuda haNasi accepted this pain as a Divine decree with such equanimity that for those those thirteen years “no pregnant woman in Eretz Yisra’él died, nor did any miscarry.” But the remaining four years were not easy, either. The great 18th century scholar Rabbi David Fränkel, in his Qorban ha‘Eida ad loc., explains the comparison with Ya‘aqov as being “because these seventeen years were days of sorrow for him,” not only the thirteen years of toothache. Why?

Rabbi Yëhuda haNasi was the last of the Tanna’im, the teachers of the Mishna. As the Rambam tells us in the introduction to his Mishné Torah, it was Rabbi Yëhuda haNasi who edited and published the Mishna in written form. This culmination of a long life of labor in the Torah took place during that seventeen-year stay in Tzipporin.

By so doing, he preserved the Oral Torah and made possible its transmission to all subsequent Jewish generations down to our own, thus earning himself the sobriquet Rebbi, the master teacher of all those subsequent generations. One might think that the conclusion of such a vital and holy work would be the cause of rejoicing.

But Rebbi knew better. His work was necessitated by the hithqatnuth hadoroth, the decline in spiritual and intellectual capacity of those generations. Among his students were the cream of the crop, the best and the brightest of their day, yet it seemed that not enough were capable of learning and memorizing the full corpus of material which constitutes the inner spiritual heritage of Israel. What had been deliberately left oral by Moshe (at Ha-Shem’s behest; cf. Midrash Tanchuma, Parashath Ki Thissa), and transmitted orally for over 1500 years thereafter now had to be committed to writing or be lost. It was the end of an era; for Rebbi, they were indeed “days of sorrow.”

As we conclude the life story of Ya‘aqov with this week’s parasha, a little reflection on that story reveals that he had led, in many ways, the hardest life of any of the Patriarchs.

The conflict with ‘Ésav, the difficult years with Lavan, the premature death of his beloved Rachél, the long separation from Yoséf and the years of famine had all left their mark. Surely the Sforno’s observation had been correct: most of Ya‘aqov’s life had not been chayyim.

But now he was reunited with his favorite son; what is more, Yoséf’s position in Egypt meant that none of Ya‘aqov’s household would ever again be in want of any material requirement. Still better, the Lavan problem had been solved.

In Deuteronomy XXVI, 5 we read: “Arammi ovéd avi vayéred Mitzrayma.” The Haggada shel Pesach famously understands that to mean: “An Aramaean (i.e., Lavan) sought to destroy my forefather (Ya‘aqov), who went down to Egypt.”

The well-known 19th century rabbi and author Marcus (Mé’ir) Lehmann, in his commentary on the Haggada, notes this verse’s telescoped character; it seems to ignore everything which happened between Ya‘aqov’s flight from Lavan’s camp and his descent into Egypt. He explains this as follows: during that period, Ya‘aqov had to be extremely careful in regard to disciplining his sons, since at any time one of them could simply declare that he was going home to Grandfather Lavan, and an entire tribe would have been lost to Israel. However, arriving in Egypt with his entire household followed by the Egyptians’ sealing of their border was the solution to Ya‘aqov’s dilemma, since they were no longer free to go. The verse thus telescopes history to show that the threat of Lavan’s pernicious influence had now been neutralized.

These, then, were the reasons behind the “good and proper life” to which the Nëtziv alludes. But it was also the end of an era: Israel’s entry into the Egyptian exile, where his descendants would languish for 210 years; worse, as implied by the “settling” of vayéshev, it was the beginning of the entry of that exile into them. That was the source of the sorrow, of which Ya‘aqov (in my humble opinion) was spared the worst by being made to die early.

We also, in our day, are witnesses to a bittersweet transition. On the one hand, we have seen an incredible growth of Torah learning and observance in America, with the transplantation of so many communities and institutions from Europe into the New World. As a result, a dispirited and moribund American Jewry has been revitalized and awakened, generating an insatiable demand for English translations of Jewish classics, as well as original Torah literature in English.

But the cost of that transplantation and renaissance, the utter destruction of the European centers which had dominated Jewish scholarship for centuries with the rise of both international and National Socialism, and the Second World War which followed constitutes the element of sorrow which colors our chayyim.