This week’s parshah begins, “Vayechi Yaakov b’Eretz Mitzrayim – And Yaakov lived in the land of Egypt [17 years] vayeehi yemei Yaakov –and the sum total of his years [were 147]” (Bereishit 47:28).
The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, zt”l, notes that Yaakov Avinu’s years can be divided into three periods.
First, he resided in Eretz Cana’an, the Holy Land, for 77 years, secluded in “the tents of study,” sheltered from the entanglements of material life.
Then in the second stage of his life Yaakov lived in Charan for 20 years, where Lavan employed him as a shepherd. During those two decades Yaakov married, built a family and amassed much material wealth.
After living another number of years in Cana’an, Yaakov “descended” to Mitzrayim, where he spend the last 17 years of his life.
Yaakov’s quality of life in each of the three stages differed drastically one from the other. The first 77 years in Eretz Yisrael were tranquil and blessed, when nothing alien intruded upon his life of Torah study, tefillah (prayer) and avodas Hashem (service of G-d).
Going fully to the opposite extreme, Yaakov’s sojourn in Charan, in the house of Lavan, was fraught with challenge and struggle. Yaakov had to be on guard every moment to recognize and counteract the deceit and duplicity of Lavan. In order to marry and support his growing family, Yaakov, worked to exhaustion as (in his own words), “heat consumed me by day, and frost at night; and sleep was banished from my eyes” (Bereishit, 31:40). Upon Yaakov’s return from Charan, the malach (angel) told him, “You have struggled with G-d and with men, and have prevailed (Bereishit 32:29).
Yaakov, however, held his own throughout these hardships, and eventually he triumphed. Then came the 17 years that he lived in Mitzrayim, where he experienced for the first time in his life, true galut, being under the yoke of an alien environment. Here Yaakov was compelled to pay homage to Pharaoh, the arch-idol. Then after Yaakov passed on, his body was in the possession of the Egyptian embalmers, certainly idol-worshipper, for 40 days.
After a lifetime in which he either lived within his own self-imposed sacred seclusion or struggled against adversity, Yaakov’s final years were a time of spiritual bondage in a society which the Torah calls “the depravity of the earth.”
In that light, how can Chazal (our Rabbis) comment that the Torah regards these 17 years as the best of Yaakov’s life? This is because Yaakov knew how to utilize his galut in Mitzrayim to impel the strivings of his soul and work towards its aim. Is it not amazing that Yaakov’s descendants were forged into a nation, Bnei Yisrael, under the tyranny and decadent rule of the Pharaohs?
As with all that is written in Torah, we look for the message to apply to our own lives today. As Ramban (Nachmanides) writes in his classic commentary on Sefer Bereishit (The Book of Genesis), “Ma’aseh Avot Siman LeBanim – The action of the forefathers is a sign of what will happen with the children.”
We, too, experience in the course of our lifetimes the three stages of being, which Yaakov knew: sovereignty, struggle, and subjugation.
We hold onto a vision of a transcendent self – a pure and inviolate soul, at the core of our being. Although this essence is not always accessible to us, there are “moments of truth” in our lives in which this spiritual internal truth asserts itself over any outside influence. For most of us these illuminating moments are few and far between. More commonly, we exist in a state of struggle between the passions of our divided hearts. Our old habits and behavior patterns are often deeply engrained and not easy to conquer.
This tension indicates that we have not fully mastered our existence, but it is also a sign that we are alive. This is life at its fullest and most productive. We are resisting the forces that seek to pry us away from our internal truth; we engage them and battle them. This is why we were put on earth – to fight the blinding neon lights – and open our eyes to pure natural daylight.
However, we also know times of powerlessness, when we face circumstances that are beyond our control and ability to resist. Those are moments when it seems that our lives have stopped in its tracks, and we feel locked into a fortress of despair. Keep in mind, “Everything that happened to the Patriarchs…is decreed to happen to their descendants.” Our lives will not follow our forefathers’ in exact sequence and occurrence. Yet the three lives of Yaakov are “signposts” that guide, inspire and enable our own.