The Torah portion of Vayechi begins with a declaration of life “And Yaacov lived in the land of Egypt for seventeen years, and Yaacov’s days, the years of his life, were a hundred and forty seven years.”( Genesis 48:28) and ends with a declaration of hope “Yoseph said to his brothers, “I am going to die; G-d will surely remember you and take you up out of this land to the land that He swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Yaacov.” ( ibid 50:24-26)
Our sages focus on the first words in the Parsha “And Yaacov lived ” On this verse the Baal Haturim writes “these seventeen years were the best years of his life — years of prosperity, goodness and peace; his other 130 years were filled with toil and pain.”
One is struck by the question of how one is to truly value life. Is the essence of Yaacov’s life only defined by the “good” final seventeen years of his life .In addition we read a dramatic and unusual statement also derived from this verse. Rabbi Yochanan taught that “Yaakov Avinu never died”. (Masechet Ta’anit 5b) He bases this on our verse and a verse in the book of Jeremiah wherein the prophet says “But you, have no fear, My servant Yaakov… I will deliver you from far away, your offspring from their land of captivity.”(Jeremiah 30:10). On the other hand the other sages point out that we clearly see that Yaacov is embalmed and eulogized. It is evident that Rabbi Yochanan knew that as well .So then how are we to understand his statement that “Yaakov Avinu never died”?
Yaacov’s journey into Egypt was not about his seventeen years of peace, quiet and prosperity. His journey into Egypt in fact led into a time of great hardship and slavery. Yet his seventeen “good” years were such that they gave him much hope in seeing that all of the promise made to Abraham would come into fulfillment. He understood that the beginning of the covenantal promise that “Know of a surety that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years; ” would be followed by ” and also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge; and afterward shall they come out with great substance. … In that day HaShem made a covenant with Abram, saying: ‘Unto thy seed have I given this land,”(ibid15:13-18 )
It was during those seventeen “ good “ years that Yaacov merited to see his children gathered together and his grandchildren continuing on the way of the forefathers. That was the vision of immortality that assured true life for Yaacov. As King David says in psalms “May HaShem bless you from Zion all the days of your life; may you see the prosperity of Jerusalem and may you live to see your children’s children. Peace be upon Israel.” ( Psalm 128)
Yaacov merited experiencing the vision of Israel. He then intuitively knew the truth that Yoseph reminded the brothers “And now be not grieved, nor angry with yourselves, that ye sold me hither; for G-d did send me before you to preserve life.( Genesis 45:5 ) That “life” is an expression of three generations walking forward into what may prove to be an uneasy future but yet equipped with a strong and unshakeable faith . It is that faith we will need to hearken to as we approach colder and hazier days in our own national lives. Yet this land has seen three and more generations growing, struggling and persevering together. Yaacov still lives as do his descendants.
It is no wonder that we end the reading here, as we will at the end of each of the five books of Torah with the words “ Chazak, Chazak VeNitchazek-Be strong! Be strong! And may we be strengthened!” Three generations who hold on to their spiritual strength and identity will prove to be the ingredients of eternity.