D’var Torah: May our days be filled with meaning

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Rabbi Carnie Shalom Rose, Congregation B'nai Amoona

Each year, as we prepare to read the final Torah portion in the book of Genesis, Parashat Vayechi, I am struck again by the opening verse of the portion:

“And Jacob lived 17 years in the land of Egypt so that the total span of Jacob’s lifetime came to 147 years.”

The question that always gnaws at me is: Why would a Torah portion describing the death of a patriarch be dubbed “Vayechi” — and he lived — as opposed to “Vayamot” — and he died”?

As always, there is no shortage of rabbinic clarification for this apparent anomaly. Many years ago when I was studying in Jerusalem with my late teacher, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz (of blessed memory), he mentioned how these kinds of verses remind us that the authors and editors of sacred texts are not a bunch of “stuffed shirt old fuddy-duddies,” but rather brilliant minds with equally brilliant senses of humor. Anybody who ignores rabbinic wit will undoubtedly miss out on another facet of the genius of our great sages and venerated teachers.

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This year, as I was reviewing the Torah portion in preparation for Shabbat, I came upon one such exquisite interpretation attributed to Rabbi Yaakov Ben Asher (c. 1269 – c. 1343), also known as Ba’al HaTurim, who was an influential medieval rabbinic authority:

“Why does the Parshah, which discusses the death of Yaakov, start with the word “Vayechi — And Yaakov lived”? Because the word “Vayechi — And he lived” has the Hebrew letter numerical value of 34. Yaakov was in the land of the living for a total of 147 years. Of these, “he lived” and he enjoyed almost 34 of these years; the 17 years from the birth of his beloved son Yosef until the point when he was sold as a slave into Egypt, and then another 17 years when he lived in Egypt and was reunited with his cherished son, Yosef.”

Having grown up in the Great White North and being the son of a feminist poet, I was fortunately exposed to the powerful musings of Canadian poet Jane Vance Rule (of blessed memory), a somewhat controversial figure in her era as a writer of lesbian-themed works. Rule once wrote:

“It’s not the length but the quality of life that matters to me. It has always been important to me to write one sentence at a time, to live every day as if it were my last and judge it in those terms, often badly, not because it lacked grand gesture or grand passion but because it failed in the daily virtues of self-discipline, kindness and laughter. It is love, very ordinary, human love, and not fear, which is the good teacher and the wisest judge.”

Both Ba’al HaTurim’s insight and Rule’s writings underscore a similar point. The best moments in our lives, the ones that feel full and teeming with positive energy, are those when we feel we are experiencing a sense of quality. Length of days — Arichat Yamim in Hebrew — often can be a great blessing, but only if those days are filled with meaning, consequence and love. And, as one who has now served my Kehillah for 17 glorious and existentially meaningful years, I look forward to at least 17 more uplifting and inspiring years of service to the people of our Kehilah Kedoshah, our holy community.

As we turn to the final chapters of the Book of Bereshit, the Sefer that initiates all life, I pray that we each will experience many moments when we feel truly alive teeming with Gezunt — vitality and vigor!

May this be God’s Blessings for us as we enter this Holy Day of rest and respite. Amen!

Shabbat Shalom!