ויחי יעקב בארץ מצרים שבע עשרה שנה, ויהי ימי יעקב שניי חייו שבע שנים וארבעים ומאת שנה.
“And Yakov lived in the Land of Egypt for seventeen years; and the days of Yakov, the years of his life, were seven years and one hundred forty years.” (Bereishis 47:28)
The verse begins with the word veyechi – and he lived, instead of the usual vayehi – and it was, as we see in the second part of the verse. What is the significance of this word? Furthermore, why does the verse separate seven years of Yakov’s life and mention it before the other one hundred forty years? Also, why does the verse say “the days of Yakov, the years of his life” when it would have been enough to say just one of these phrases?
Later, the Torah tells us that “the days of Yisroel approached for him to die.” The Zohar asks: “A person dies only once, so why does the Torah say that the days of Yisroel approached for him to die, as if he died on more than one day?”
The Gemara (Taanis 5b) states that “Yakov our forefather didn’t die.” How can the Gemara make such a statement when it says clearly in the Torah that he did die?
We can understand all this by looking deeper into the making of a true tzaddik. It says in Mishlei (24:16): “The tzaddik falls seven times and kam – he gets up again.” The difference between a tzaddik and a regular person is that when most people have a difficult time, whether physically or spiritually, they fall into despair and lose their fighting strength and connection with Hashem. But the tzaddik always gets up again. Even if he falls seven times and repeatedly faces difficult physical or spiritual challenges, he never loses his connection with Hashem.
Yakov had a long life during which he faced many difficulties. In his youth, he was a “wholesome person who sat in the tents” and studied Torah with serenity. Even though his brother Eisav had totally different pursuits, this did not affect Yakov at all. But suddenly, Yakov’s peaceful life turned upside down. One day, his mother calls him over and instructs him to take Eisav’s place without Yitzchok’s knowledge in order to receive the brachos that Yitzchok intended for Eisav. Yakov was afraid that instead of being blessed, he will incur his father’s wrath and be cursed, but his mother assured him that she would accept any punishment on his behalf.
The verse that recounts this exchange uses the word “olei – upon me.” Yakov uses this word again (Bereishis 42:36, 45:7) when referring to the difficulties of his life. What is the meaning of this extra word? Its letters hint at three significant tests in Yakov’s life: Eisav, Lavan and Yosef. Yakov had to deal with Eisav’s hatred, with Lavan’s harassment and the pain of Yosef’s disappearance. But that wasn’t all. He was assaulted by Elifaz when he left Eretz Yisroel, fought with Eisav’s heavenly angel, suffered through the capture and disgrace of his daughter Dinah and then faced the repercussions of Shimon and Levi’s retaliation against Shechem.
Yakov did not have an easy life by any means. His life was beset by many challenges, yet he never lost his connection to Hashem. He never stopped learning Torah and serving his Creator. He was a true example of a tzaddik who faces many difficulties, yet gets up again and again and strengthens himself to serve Hashem despite everything. A tzaddik doesn’t give up when the going gets rough. Yakov could have found many excuses for not learning Torah, but he always fought back against the yetzer hara and never gave up his high level of avodas Hashem, despite the many distractions he had.
This is what the verse is hinting at: “The days of Yakov, the years of his life, were seven years and one hundred forty years.” The word kam in Hebrew has the numerical value of one hundred forty. How did Yakov live his days? He fell seven times, yet kam (140) - he stood up again and again! The verse separates the seven years from the remaining hundred and forty years to tell us that although he suffered through many challenges, he always made sure to kam – to get up again and continue growing.
The Torah tells us that “the days of Yisroel approached for him to die.” Although a person dies only once, Yakov faced death more than once. Eisav wanted to kill him, Elifaz pursued him in order to kill him, Lavan made an attempt on his life, and still he stood up again and again. He named his beloved firstborn from Rachel “Yosef” which means to increase. Yakov was never content with his spiritual achievements and always wanted to increase his avodas Hashem, despite the many hardships he faced.
Since Yakov faced death and suffering many times but always remained connected to Hashem, therefore “Yakov our forefather didn’t die.” There are people who are living a dead life; they push through life feeling dead inside. Yakov was alive every minute, even when he suffered from serious troubles. He never let his spirit die, and although the day for him to die approached, his spirit is still alive to this very day!
The Torah tells us that the last seventeen years of Yakov’s life were his best years. During those years, he truly lived every moment, according to the fullest sense of the word. This is why the verse uses the word “vayechi – and he lived,” because he was so very deeply alive. He looked back at his life experiences from the perspective of hindsight and realized how Hashem protected him during the challenging times of his life. Eisav and his angel had no power over him, and neither did Lavan. He was reunited with Yosef, who remained a tzaddik even in the impure land of Egypt. Looking back, he regretted the times he felt anxious and distressed, because after all, Hashem had always been with him and always helped him.
My dear brothers! Let us learn from our great ancestor Yakov and strengthen ourselves in the face of the difficult challenges we face. The yetzer hara tries to drag us away from Hashem, devising new tactics every single day. He makes people struggle with parnassa (earning a livelihood), with shidduchim, with raising children or with serious health problems, may Hashem help them all. How many times do we feel as if we cannot go on any more, as if the “days for us to die are approaching” chas v’shalom?
There are so many people who want to serve Hashem properly, but the yetzer hara keeps on distracting them through various means. There are fine bachurim who strive to learn, but the yetzer hara clouds their minds and hearts with thoughts and feelings that undermine their emunah and yiras shamayim. To whom should they turn? To whom should they unburden themselves? They feel as if spiritual death is approaching.
We are entering the weeks of Shovavim (a six-week period, beginning parshas Shemos, which is especially suitable for tshuva). Hashem is extending His arm to us and urging us to come back. Let us take stock of our lives and ask ourselves: are we truly living every moment? Are we getting up after every fall? Let us not allow ourselves to be dragged down into the depths of despair. Hashem is waiting for our tshuva with love. We just need to get up with renewed strength and fall into the loving embrace of our Father in Heaven.
May Hashem help each individual person with his difficulties and challenges, and everyone should merit seeing yeshuos and refuos. May everyone be zoche to see true nachas from all of their children, and may we all merit greeting Moshiach speedily in our days, Amein.