A life of purpose and meaning
The Parasha in the daily Life - Parashat Vayehi - Rabbi Eliezer Shenvald - 5780
Parashat Vayehi seals the book of Genesis and the period of the Patriarchs and is named after its opening:
וַיְחִ֤ייַעֲקֹב֙ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם שְׁבַ֥ע עֶשְׂרֵ֖ה שָׁנָ֑ה וַיְהִ֤י יְמֵֽי־יַעֲקֹב֙ שְׁנֵ֣י חַיָּ֔יו שֶׁ֣בַע שָׁנִ֔ים וְאַרְבָּעִ֥ים וּמְאַ֖ת שָׁנָֽה׃ וַיִּקְרְב֣וּ יְמֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֘ל לָמוּת֒...
"Yaacov lived seventeen years in the land of Egypt, so that the span of Yaacov’s life came to one hundred and forty-seven years. And when the time approached for Israel to die…. (Bereshit 47:28)
Initially, the Parasha deals with Yaacov's death and burial in the Cave of the Patriarchs (Mearat HaMachpela), before his death, Yaacov gathers his sons around his bed, blesses them and gives each one of them an assignment, an objective within the House of Israel.
Later in the Parasha, the Torah mentions Rachel's death, and at the end Yosef's death and his will for burial in the land of Canaan. The Haftarah also deals with David's death and will. This is also the case with Parashat Chayei Sarah, which is named after Sarah's life and deals with her death and burial, and at the end also Abraham's.
Many ask why is it that the Parasha is given life themed titles when in reality it deals with death?
The Maharal mentioned the rule: "The knowledge about things comes from their opposite, because from the black prospect you can see the white one which is its opposite, and so on with all the opposites, from knowing one you know its opposite. And it is agreed that "the knowledge of opposites is one" (Netzach Israel - Chapter 1).
Parashat Vayehi, which deals with "death" and the finality of life, is a key to understanding life's meaning and purpose. Life has a purpose. Man did not just come into the world to exist, and life is not just a biological, mechanical process of the organism that at some point comes to an end. Life itself has potential, given by heaven, that allows one to act in this world, create meaningful things, influence and make a mark:
ימי החיים נתנו להוציא על ידם מן הכח אל הפעל בודאי איזה דבר ממשי
"Life-days were given to materialize something worthily" (Olat Reiyah Morning Supplications).
The purpose and mission of life constitute a "compass" that direct man to live life in order to put them into practice. The "quality of life" depends on the quality of work and creation that man has created for himself. In these actions, there are steps according to its valence that are measured considering G-d’s indices.
Chazal considered life 'without values and without meaning' as death. Although biologically they are alive:
״כִּי הַחַיִּים יוֹדְעִים שֶׁיָּמוּתוּ״ — אֵלּוּ צַדִּיקִים שֶׁבְּמִיתָתָן נִקְרְאוּ חַיִּים, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״וּבְנָיָהוּ בֶן יְהוֹיָדָע בֶּן אִישׁ חַי... ״וְהַמֵּתִים אֵינָם יוֹדְעִים מְאוּמָה״ — אֵלּוּ רְשָׁעִים, שֶׁבְּחַיֵּיהֶן קְרוּיִין ״מֵתִים״, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״וְאַתָּה חָלָל רָשָׁע נְשִׂיא יִשְׂרָאֵל״.
"For the living know that they will die, these are the righteous, who even in their death are called living. An allusion to this is as it is stated: “And Benayahu, son of Yehoyada, son of a valiant man of Kabze’el, who had done mighty deeds, he smote the two altar-hearths of Moab; he went down also and slew a lion in the midst of a pit in time of snow” (II Samuel 23:20)… In contrast to the righteous, who are referred to as living even after their death, the verse states explicitly: “The dead know nothing.” These are the wicked, who even during their lives are called dead, as the prophet Ezekiel said in reference to a king of Israel who was alive: “And you are a slain, wicked prince of Israel”. (Berakhot 18a:14)
Because of this, the sages also said that "Yaacov our father is not dead!", Although biologically he died:
יעקב אבינו לא מת אמר ליה וכי בכדי ספדו ספדניא וחנטו חנטייא וקברו קברייא אמר ליה מקרא אני דורש שנאמר ואתה אל תירא עבדי יעקב נאם ה׳ ואל תחת ישראל כי הנני מושיעך מרחוק ואת זרעך מארץ שבים מקיש הוא לזרעו מה זרעו בחיים אף הוא בחיים
"After they had eaten, Rabbi Yitzḥak said to Rav Naḥman that Rabbi Yoḥanan said as follows: Our patriarch Yaacov did not die. Rav Naḥman asked him in surprise: And was it for naught that the eulogizers eulogized him and the embalmers embalmed him and the buriers buried him? Rabbi Yitzḥak replied to Rav Naḥman: I am interpreting a verse, as it is stated: “Therefore do not fear, Yaacov My servant, says Hashem, neither be dismayed, Israel, for I will save you from afar, and your seed from the land of their captivity” (Yirmiyahu 30:10). This verse juxtaposes Yaacov to his seed: Just as his seed is alive when redeemed, so too, Yaacov himself is alive." (Taanit 5b)
It is precisely when life comes to an end, that the extent of the done mission becomes clear and can be discerned to what extent it was significant, during their time and for the future.
וַיִּקְרְב֣וּ יְמֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֘ל לָמוּת֒. מהו ויקרבו? אמר הקב"ה: היום קובל עליך לומר כי הוא יקום, כאדם שאומר פלוני קרב על חבירו,
"And when the time approached for Israel to die", what does it mean approached? The Almighty said: The "day" is complaining about You. Just as a man approaches his friend. (Bereshit Rabbah 96). The Midrash explains the word "approached" - as a kind of 'battle' between the 'day' and Yaacov. As it was, on the day Yaacov was sentenced to die, the "day" came before the Almighty just "as a man who tells on his friend: 'until now was his own time to live and act in the world, and now it is someone else's turn; and if he does not leave, he is delaying someone else.
עַד שֶׁלֹא יִשְׁקַע שִׁמְשׁוֹ שֶׁל זֶה, הוּא מַזְרִיחַ שִׁמְשׁוֹ שֶׁל אַחֵר
"Not until someone's sun goes down, is it possible for another's sun to go up" (Kohelet Rabbah 1:5)
The Yefe To'ar has another explanation:
Completeness and perfection can be achieved with time if it's not wasted. And a wise person, when his time is over, and he's done his share, he still feels his life in this world was wasted.
This week, we commemorated the 10th of Tevet, marking the General Day of Holocaust Remembrance.
In his book 'The Man Seeking Meaning', the psychologist Victor Frankel, who survived the Holocaust concentration camps, notes that the meaning of life is what gave the power to live and cope with the inferno despite the physical weakness. Those who lost the meaning of life did not survive.
The Torah directs a person to maximize their inner potential in their lifetime and to give it a unique meaning, by studying Torah, observing the Mitzvot, doing valuable actions of kindness, etc.
In the postmodern era of the blurring of values and their validity, there has been an absolute erosion of the purpose of life, of valuable intentions. In addressing the challenges of the world of action, everyone needs to examine how he or she uses their life to make meaningful work that will advance the world and make its mark for the future as well.