L’chayim! To life!
The name of this morning’s Torah portion is Vayechi, which means “and he lived.” It comes from the word Chai, as in l’chayim. To life!
The major focus of the reading, however, is death. It is not the first time. This is similar to descriptions of earlier figures like Sarah and Abraham, whose deaths are also introduced by some form of the word chayim.
The opening words of Parashat Vayechi are Vayechi Ya’alov — “Jacob lived seventeen years in the land of Egypt, so that the span of Jacob’s life came to one hundred and forty-seven years. And when the time approached for Israel to die…” and so on. Most of the parashah describes Jacob’s actions over the course of his final days.
He says his goodbyes to his family members. First he calls his son Joseph to his bedside, along with Joseph’s sons Efraim and Menashe. Jacob offers a special blessing to them, effectively granting Joseph the double portion that typically went to the firstborn.
Then Jacob summons all of his sons to his side to offer his final words to each of them. He instructs them to return his body to Canaan, the Promised Land. They must bury him in the ancestral grave at the Cave of Machpelah.
When he dies, Jacob’s body is embalmed over the course of forty days in preparation for its journey. Then the Egyptians mourn him for seventy days. There is a grand procession as Jacob’s sons accompany his body to the Promised Land. When they finally bury him, they mourn for an additional seven days. This is the most extensive funeral description in the entire Bible.
The last five verses of Vayechi are a miniaturized repetition of the earlier parts of the Torah portion. While the bulk of the parashah describes the final days of Jacob, the coda describes Joseph’s passing. In doing so, it follows a nearly identical pattern.
When it comes time for Joseph to die, the Torah introduces the episode with the word Vayechi, just as it had with Jacob. Vayechi Yosef me’ah v’eser shanim, “and Joseph lived one hundred and ten years.” We then read how Joseph spends his final days.
Like Jacob, Joseph lives to see his progeny, children of the third generation. In other, words, he is a great grandfather. Before his death, Joseph gathers his family together for a final blessing. He also makes them swear to bring his bones up to the Promised Land. All of this is in emulation of Jacob.
Then we encounter a new word. Vayamot — “And he died.” Earlier it said, Vayechi Yosef me’ah v’eser shanim. Now, five verses later, it says, Vayamot Yosef ben-me’ah va’eser shanim — “And Joseph died at one hundred and ten years.” Note that the Torah has repeated the length of Joseph’s life. We will come back to that.
Joseph is embalmed, like Jacob. Unlike his father, Joseph’s body is placed in a coffin and stored in Egypt. The final burial is going to have to wait. This ends both the parashah, as well as the entire book of Genesis.
This unfulfilled promise to bring Joseph’s bones back to the Promised Land is an ominous ending. Life in Egypt is to be temporary. The children of Jacob should not get too comfortable in this foreign land.
We come back to the word vayechi. And he lived. Jacob, and Joseph, teach us an important lesson. It is not the length of years that matter so much as how we live them. When it comes time to die, the Torah emphasizes how they lived. Even in their infirmity, Jacob and Joseph both used their remaining time most effectively. They gather their family together, despite a history of some very difficult relationships. They offer final blessings, and instructions. They let their children know how they wanted to be buried and remembered. We can say that they did not spend their dying days dying, but rather living.
Now we come back to the repetition of Joseph’s lifespan: one hundred and ten years. Why is it repeated in the span of just five verses? 19th century Polish Rabbi Chayim Aryeh Leib suggests that it is to emphasize that Joseph died with a shem tov – a good name. That is to say, when he died, his name was still Joseph. Even though he had been the viceroy of Egypt for eighty years, even though Pharaoh had bestowed upon him the Egyptian name of Tzafnat Paneach, he still insisted on keeping his Hebrew name, Yosef. For this reason, the Torah specifies that Joseph lived for 110 years, and when he died after 110 years, he was still Joseph.
Each generation learns from the previous. A midrash explains that the Israelites, throughout their time enslaved in Egypt, kept their Hebrew names. That was one of the reasons that they merited redemption. To this day, Jews may have secular names in the language of their country, but we also have our Jewish names, which we use in all of our religious activities.
Parashat Vayechi is about generations passing on lessons about what is important, not by speaking, but by living. We learn that to live Jewishly is to live with intention. Jacob teaches his sons how to live out his final days, and Joseph clearly is paying attention. Joseph, the only one of the brothers who lived most of his life in Egypt, outside of the homeland, keeps his identity to the very end. Future generations follow his example. Centuries later, when God remembers the promise to the Patriarchs, the Israelites still have their names, and still have their identity as the children of Jacob.