When the Tzemach Tzedek was a young boy, his cheder teacher taught him the verse: “And Yaakov lived in the land of Egypt for 17 years,” explaining that these were the best years of Yaakov’s life. The Tzemach Tzedek asked his grandfather, the Alter Rebbe: How was it possible that the best years of Yaakov’s life would be spent in a depraved land?
The Alter Rebbe answered him: Even before he arrived, Yaakov sent Yehudah to Egypt to establish a yeshivah. When one studies the Torah, one comes close to G-d. This closeness allows one to live with true and genuine vitality, even in Egypt. Indeed, the depravity of Egypt enhanced the vitality experienced by Yaakov. For the transformation of darkness reveals a higher quality of light. Yaakov’s establishment of Torah life amid the darkness of Egyptian society expressed the essential vitality he possessed and endowed to his children.
-Rabbi Eli Touger
In the Garden of Torah
Commentary for Torah Portion Vayechi
Likkutei Sichos, Vol. X, p. 160ff; Vol. XV, p. 422ff;
Sichos Shabbos Parshas Vayechi, 5751
For most of us, the idea that Jacob had established a yeshivah in Egypt prior to taking his family down into that land seems a little farfetched. About a month ago, I wrote a missive on the Rabbinization of Abraham that tried to make some sort of sense of the Talmudic writers “reinventing” ancient events in the post-Second Temple world. However, in a metaphorical and perhaps spiritual sense, I think we can understand the words I just quoted in a way that can apply to those of us who are people of faith today.
How can we say that Jacob’s last 17 years of life in the idolatrous land of Egypt were the happiest of his life? One way is to realize that for the previous two decades, Jacob thought that Joseph was dead; ripped apart and probably consumed by a wild beast. Jacob never fully recovered from this event and lived in grief and sorrow from that time on…until discovering Joseph was alive. Joseph saved his family from the continuing famine by relocating them to the rich and fertile region of Goshen in Egypt. What could Jacob desire now that his family was safe and cared for and that he was reunited with his beloved son? What more could he want now that he lived even to see and bless his grandchildren by Joseph in Egypt?
But he lived in Egypt which is usually, to put it mildly, is a “spiritual no-no.” Assuming he wasn’t studying Torah in the “tents of Shem”, so to speak, besides what I mentioned in the previous paragraph, is there any other reason Jacob should have considered his old age in Egypt as the best years of his life?
So Israel set out with all that was his, and he came to Beer-sheba, where he offered sacrifices to the God of his father Isaac. God called to Israel in a vision by night: “Jacob! Jacob!” He answered, “Here.” And He said, “I am God, the God of your father. Fear not to go down to Egypt, for I will make you there into a great nation. I Myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I Myself will also bring you back; and Joseph’s hand shall close your eyes.” –Genesis 46:1-4
Jacob had God’s promise that he would see Joseph, which he did, that Joseph would “close his eyes”, which he did, that God would make his descendents into a great nation in Egypt, which He did, and that God would escort Israel out of Egypt and bring them back to the land of promise, which He did. Although Jacob lived his declining years in relative comfort, even if he were poor and half-starved, I still suspect they might have been his “best years” if only because of God’s promises. The exile wasn’t permanent. Even in the land of idols, God was with Israel, even in the land where his children would become slaves.
What does that say about us? If this Torah Portion can’t be applied to us, it makes an interesting study but little else. However, there are lessons we can take and use in our own lives as we work, play, marry, raise families, and grow old within the context of a fallen world, surrounded by the idols of our society. We have God’s promises, too.
Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. –Romans 8:1-4
As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. –Ephesians 2:1-7
True life can be ascribed only to G-d, as it is written: “And G-d your L-rd is true; He is the living G-d.” Just as Truth is uninterrupted and unchanging, so too life is in essence unchanging and eternal. Thus our Sages describe a stream as “living water” only when it flows constantly.
On the last day of the festival of Sukkot, the Master declared that he is the living water (John 7:37-41) and thus our “true life” is in him. We also know that no one who has perished trusting God has actually died, for God is a God of the living (Luke 20:38). Rabbi Touger also tells us this.
The above enables us to understand why the Torah reading is named Vayechi “And he lived” although it speaks of Yaakov’s death. As the events of the reading demonstrate, Yaakov’s life was one of connection to G-d that transcended material settings. And since he shared this quality with his descendants, it was perpetuated beyond his mortal lifetime. As our Sages say: “Yaakov, our ancestor, did not die. As his descendants are alive, he is alive.”
We also know that our “Egypt”, just as Jacob’s, is not forever.
Therefore, Yaakov called his sons together with the intent of revealing the time of the Redemption to them. He assured them that they would be redeemed from Egypt, promising: “G-d will be with you, and He will bring you back to your ancestral land.” For it is in Eretz Yisrael and more particularly, in the Eretz Yisrael of the Redemption that Yaakov and his descendants will truly flourish.
We have that promise as well.
Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” –Revelation 21:1-5
Regardless of where we live, how we live, our day-to-day circumstances, our fears, our mistakes, our illnesses, and our woes, we are His if we know our God and trust in Him. The promises come to us from the Master, the Savior, the Messiah, the Son of God so that we can be reconciled and also be considered sons and daughters of the Most High. If we allow our souls to sail upon the winds of hope, we too will never die because God lives forever.
To one whose self is his body, death of the body is death of the self. But for one whose self is his love, awe and faith, there is no death, only a passing. From a state of confinement in the body, he makes the passage to liberation. He continues to work within this world, and even more so than before.
The Talmud says that Jacob, our father, never died. Moses, also, never died. Neither did Rabbi Judah the Prince. They were very high souls who were one with Truth in an ultimate bond—and since Truth can never die, neither could they.
Yes, in our eyes we see death. A body is buried in the ground, and we must mourn the loss. But this is only part of the falseness of our world. In the World of Truth, they are still here as before.
And the proof: We are still here. For if these high souls would not be with us in our world, all that we know would cease to exist.
-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Transform darkness into light. Good Shabbos.