Vayechi is the last sedra in the book of Bereshith. I would like to focus on the very first verse ‘And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt seventeen years; the days of Jacob, the years of his life, were a hundred and forty years.’
In typical Torah fashion, the text makes sure to give us an exact number of years for Jacob’s life – one hundred and forty-seven. In doing so, it uses a strangely repetitive turn of phrase ‘the days of Jacob, the years of his life’. On the surface, the two phrases mean the same thing – how long Jacob lived. But at least one midrash found this elaboration to be indicative of something else. The midrash reads the second of the two phrases ‘shnei chayav’ not as the ‘years of his life’ but rather as ‘his two lives’.
If I had to say when his second life began, I would say with the mysterious night-time incident when Jacob wrestles with the supernatural. Jacob is affected both physically and spiritually. He can no longer walk without a limp and he is blessed in the name of Israel to be God’s faithful servant. But in many ways Jacob led more than two lives. As in the best plays and books, there is notable character development. Jacob is a disappointment to his father Isaac. His behaviour is certainly not exemplary. Esau, Dinah, Laban and Joseph – what a life of rivalry, suffering and anguish did each of these tragedies bring him. Jacob experiences hardship but he also experiences love – the reciprocal love of his mother Rebecca and of his two wives Leah and Rachel. Yes, many shades of love but none that can compare with the boundless love that God has for Jacob. In the dream of a ladder stretching from earth to heaven (28:12-16), Jacob senses the ‘nearness’ of the Love of God ‘how full of awe is this place’ (28:17).
Jacob’s life was packed with incidents – he needed all one hundred and forty-seven of his years! Certainly, a life well lived. A force for goodness – a world made better by his presence in it. And that according to the Talmud is why this verse in the Torah says ‘Jacob lived’ rather than ‘Jacob died’.
It reminds me of reading an obituary – a death notice – in the Jewish Chronicle. I often think it should say – a life-notice.