Parashat Vayechi: Yaakob’s Final Seventeen Years
Parashat Vayehi begins by giving us the "statistics" of the end of Yaakob Abinu’s life: "Yaakob lived in the land of Egypt for seventeen years; Yaakob’s days…were 147 years."
The question arises as to the purpose of the Torah’s emphasis that Yaakob’s spent seventeen years in Egypt. After all, we were already told earlier (47:9) that Yaakob was 130 years old when he settled in Egypt. And thus, once the Torah informs us that he died in Egypt at the age of 147, we can easily determine that he spent seventeen years in that country. There seems to be no need for the Torah to do the math for us and specifically state that Yaakob was in Egypt for seventeen years. And besides, why is it significant to know the number of years that Yaakob lived in Egypt?
The answer lies in a fundamental concept regarding our lives and the purpose for which our souls descended into this world.
The human soul originates from the Heavenly Throne, where it was able to bask in the glory and delight of closeness to God. There it enjoyed absolute purity and perfection, until God sent it down to this difficult, complicated, flawed world, where it would have to struggle – sometimes unsuccessfully – to remain pure and pristine. The soul may be compared to a princess living in the lap of luxury in the royal palace, until her father sent her to live in the slums. For the soul, the spiritual conditions of this world are like the physical conditions of a rundown slum for a princess. The soul is forced away from the pleasure and luxury of the heavens to the harsh, unholy conditions of our world.
The Zohar writes that God sends the soul in this world in order for it to earn its place in the heavens. As our Sages teach, "A man prefers one measure of his own toil than nine of somebody else’s." It is humiliating to receive handouts, to live off the largesse and generosity of other people. We much prefer earning our keep, putting in a hard day’s work and then asking for a paycheck. God therefore sends the soul into this world where it must work hard and struggle to retain its purity, through the observance of Torah and Misvot. As we know, living pure, Torah-true lives is not easy. Our natural inclination is to stay in bed in the morning, rather than get up for prayers. Our innate tendency is not to live the kind of disciplined, structured and ethical lives that the Torah demands. But we came into this world specifically to struggle, to work hard, to earn our keep, so that when our souls return to their Maker, they can delight in God’s presence as their "salary," rather than as a free gift.
And so if it feels at times that Torah life is difficult and challenging, this is precisely how it is supposed to be. A person does not get a workout in the weight room lifting 5 lb weights. He lifts 20 lbs, and then gradually works his way up to heavier and heavier weights. The same is true of the soul. It gets its "workout" by overcoming spiritual challenges. And once it overcomes one hurdle, the next one is just a bit higher. And this is how it is throughout our lives, as we work to earn our share under the Heavenly Throne.
This concept is expressed in the opening verse of the Torah, which tells that God created "Et Ha’shamayim Ve’et Ha’aretz" – the heaven and the earth. Hashem first created the heaven, the place of the souls, and then later created the earth as the place where the souls would descend to work to earn their place in the heavens.
Yaakob Abinu endured many challenges throughout his life. He was chased by Esav, spent twenty years with his corrupt uncle, Laban, and lost his beloved son Yosef for over twenty years. Yaakob passed all these tests, remaining fully committed and devoted to God throughout these ordeals. But the hardest test of all came in the final seventeen years, when he had to live in Egypt, a place of spiritual contamination and idolatry. Remaining pure in such a spiritually hostile environment was a more difficult challenge than anything Yaakob had endured until that point. Yaakob was not allowed to "retire," to rest and take it easy, at the end of his life. Even after all the tests he endured, his work was not finished. This is what the Torah is telling us when it says, "Yaakob lived in the land of Egypt for seventeen years." It teaches us that he had to continue to struggle, even at the end of his life, working to maintain his pristine state of purity in the corrupt environment of Egypt.
It is no coincidence that this period lasted for seventeen years. Earlier, we noted the significance of the phrase "Et Ha’shamayim Ve’et Ha’aretz," which refers to the creation of the earth as the place for the soul to receive its "workout." The first letters of these words – "Alef," "Heh," "Vav," "Heh" – forms one of the Names of God, and they have a combined numerical value of seventeen. Through his seventeen years in Egypt, the final of his many tests, Yaakob achieved the purpose of "Et Ha’shamayim Ve’et Ha’aretz." He spent his life working and struggling to maintain his purity, thus realizing the purpose of his soul’s descent to this world, and earning an exalted place in the heavens.
I was privileged to see a number of great Sadikim who continued this struggle even in their older years, refusing to "retire" or surrender to age or illness. I recall visiting Hacham Baruch Ben Haim zs"l in the hospital, and watching him continue to learn even as he lay in the hospital bed with tubes attached to his body and having difficulty breathing. And I had the privilege to see Rav Eliezer Shach zs"l delivering a Shiur in his yeshiva with vigor and intensity when he was in his 90’s. The Sadikim understand that as long as their souls are here on earth, they must work and struggle. There is no such thing as retiring or throwing in the towel. As long as we’re here, we have what to accomplish.
The lesson for us is not to be intimidated or discouraged by life’s tests and challenges. It’s not supposed to easy. We are here to struggle, to work hard, to exert effort. God knows exactly what tests to give us, precisely how much we can handle. If He sends us a test, it is because He knows we can pass. We must continue struggling and never despair, so that we can earn our place in the eternal world, and our souls will feel eternally gratified for having rightfully earned their place in the highest sphere, beneath the Almighty’s Heavenly Throne.