Word for the Week ... Vayechi
Rabbi Simche Sherer
A title usually reflects the theme of the subject matter. ”Genesis” is about the beginning of the world; ”Exodus” is about the Jews leaving Egypt. Whether it is a book, film or lecture series, the title should convey some idea of the content it describes.
Which is why the title of this week's parsha, Vayechi, seems inappropriate. Vayechi means ”and He Lived.” The name derives from the parsha's opening line, ” And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt seventeen years...” The parsha, however, goes on to tell us not about Jacob's life, but rather about his death; his last will and testament to his children, his passing, his funeral, and his interment in Hebron in the Holy Land.
Why would a parsha
that concentrates on a person's last days on earth, his deathbed instructions
and his burial be entitled ”And He Lived?”
The answer, say our sages, is that we are not discussing biological organisms, but Jews. And the test of true life for a Jew is whether he lived an authentic, consistent Jewish life -- for life. Did he falter before the finish line, or was he faithful to his value system until the end?
How do we know that Jacob did indeed live, in the fullest sense of the word? That his was a genuine, G-dly life? When we see that he remains true to those ideals until his dying day. Only then can we say with certainty that his life was truly alive; that his was a Vayechi life. The fact that Jacob died a righteous man validated his entire life-span, establishing it as a true life, alive and real from beginning to end.
There are individuals who have their eight minutes of fame, who shine briefly and impress the world only to fade away and leave us disappointedly watching so much unfulfilled potential dissipate into thin air. Others are longer lasting, but don't quite go all the way. Like a certain man named Yochanan who -- the Talmud tells us -- served as high priest in the Holy Temple for 80 years and then went off the rails. Scary stuff! No wonder Hillel, in Pirkei Avos, warns us not to trust ourselves morally until the day we die.
dangerous. There are no guarantees. One must constantly ”live”; grow and
attempt to improve oneself -- lest one falter before the finish line.
Not uncommon is the story of a fine gentleman who was remarkably loyal to his employer. For 45 years, he was with the same group, totally and absolutely dedicated. Then he reached the age of compulsory retirement. Suddenly he took ill. The doctors had no real diagnosis. But he got sicker and sicker until he became incapacitated and eventually died. To this day, nobody knows what he died from. But those who knew him well understood that once he left the workplace to which he had devoted his entire adult life, he had nothing left to live for. Sadly, he had no other interests. His work was his life, and without his work there was no life left.
It is psychologically sound to take up a hobby, learn to play golf or develop other interests outside of work. A Jew, though, should ideally start studying Torah. Go to classes, read a stimulating book. Studying and sharpening the mind is good for the brain. Recent medical research confirms that it can even delay the onset of Alzheimer's. Most importantly, a person must have something to live for. Find new areas of stimulation. Discover, dream, aspire higher. Life must be lived with purpose and vigor.
That's why at the end of this week's parsha, which also concludes the Book of Genesis, the congregation and Torah reader will proclaim Chazak, chazak v'nischazek --”Be strong, be strong, and we will all be strengthened.” The tendency when we finish a book is to take a breather before we pick up the next one. Such is human nature. But a book of the Torah is not just any book. Torah is not just history or biography. Torah is our source of life, and we dare not ever take a breather from life.
“Chazak” energizes us to carry on immediately. And so we do. The very same afternoon we open the Book of Exodus and continue the learning cycle without interruption.
Truth is consistent, from beginning to end. May our lives be blessed to be truly alive -- with authenticity, faithfulness and eternal fulfillment? Chazak, chazak v'nischazek!.