Jacob lived in Egypt seventeen years, and the years of his life were a hundred and forty-seven. — Genesis 47:28
This Torah portion for this week is Vayechi, which means “and he lived,” from Genesis 47:28–50:26, and the Haftorah is from 1 Kings 2:1–12.
The story of Jacob and his sons comes to a conclusion in this week’s Torah portion, and with that, the book of Genesis comes to an end. The Torah portion is called Vayechi, which means “and he lived,” from the opening verse which begins “Jacob lived . . .” Genesis begins with the creation of life; appropriately, it concludes with someone truly living life as it was meant to be lived.
The Jewish sages, however, are troubled with the wording of the first verse. How, they ask, can Scripture say that Jacob lived in Egypt? Jacob’s home was Canaan. He lived in the Holy Land! Jacob went to Egypt with the intention of staying there temporarily — only until the famine in Canaan was over. Wouldn’t it have been more appropriate to say “Jacob sojourned . . .” or “Jacob resided . . .?”
In Judaism, the letters of the Hebrew alphabet are given a numerical value. Often, the numeric value of a word has significance, and in this instance, the sages teach that the numerical value of the word vayechi is 34. From this the sages determine that Jacob, who lived to be 147 years old, had only 34 years in which he really lived to the fullest.
According to Jewish tradition, those were the 17 years before Joseph was sold into Egyptian slavery, and the 17 years after Jacob reunited with Joseph and lived together with his family in Egypt. It was only in those 34 years that Jacob truly lived.
This stunning commentary teaches us the importance of family unity. We’ve all had the experience of gathering around a holiday table with family and friends and feeling the joy and peace that comes with those annual gatherings. Sometimes, it seems as though those few hours or days together are the only “real” days of the year! The rest of the year, we go about our lives and carry on with our routines, but when we come together as a family, our lives are significantly enriched and we feel truly alive.
Imagine how Jacob’s last 17 years on earth must have felt to him. Even though he was in Egypt, out of the Holy Land, he was together with his children and grandchildren and their ever-growing families. Those precious years were full of peace, abundance, and godliness. Children, parents, and grandparents all studied the Word of God together. In this week’s Torah portion, Jacob truly lived. And as part of life, he passed on his legacy to his descendants and died surrounded by his loved ones.
Friends, we’ve just been through the holiday season, spending time with family and friends. But why wait just for the holidays to do this? It’s challenging to make time for family get-togethers in today’s busy world, but it’s worth the effort. Because in the end, family is what truly matters in life.
Family, as Jacob knew, is life.
With prayers for shalom, peace,
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
Founder and President