Likkutei Sichos, Vol. X, p. 160ff; Vol. XV, p. 422ff;
Sichos Shabbos Parshas Vayechi, 5751
Yaakov’s Best Years
When the Tzemach Tzedek was a young boy, his cheder teacher taught him the verse: “And Yaakov lived in the land of Egypt for 17 years,” explaining that these were the best years of Yaakov’s life. The Tzemach Tzedek asked his grandfather, the Alter Rebbe: How was it possible that the best years of Yaakov’s life would be spent in a depraved land?
The Alter Rebbe answered him: Even before he arrived, Yaakov sent Yehudah to Egypt to establish a yeshivah. When one studies the Torah, one comes close to G-d. This closeness allows one to live with true and genuine vitality, even in Egypt.
Indeed, the depravity of Egypt enhanced the vitality experienced by Yaakov. For the transformation of darkness reveals a higher quality of light. Yaakov’s establishment of Torah life amid the darkness of Egyptian society expressed the essential vitality he possessed and endowed to his children.
To Live with the Torah
True life can be ascribed only to G-d, as it is written: “And G-d your L-rd is true; He is the living G-d.” Just as Truth is uninterrupted and unchanging, so too life is in essence unchanging and eternal. Thus our Sages describe a stream as “living water” only when it flows constantly.
Mortal existence, by contrast, is ephemeral and subject to change. Nevertheless, by drawing close to G-d through Torah study, a person can tap a dimension of G-d’s immortality, as it is written: “And you who cling to G-d your L-rd are all alive today.”
This was the thrust of Yaakov’s entire life. When the Torah sets out to convey the nature of his personality, it describes him as “a simple man, dwelling in tents,” i.e., the tents of Shem and Ever, the leading houses of study of that age. In these domains, Yaakov’s character was shaped and molded.
And yet Yaakov did not remain in these houses of study forever. His life encompassed a variety of circumstances and challenges, allowing him the opportunity to prove that the connection to G-d he established through Torah study was genuine.
Light in Darkness
Yaakov reached the pinnacle of this lifetime journey in Egypt. There he was presented with challenges of a different nature than he had experienced previously, for he dwelt in fabulous wealth amid a land of decadent people. But as mentioned, even before Yaakov entered Egypt, he anticipated these difficulties by sending Yehudah to establish a yeshivah there. By this act, he set the tone for his future in Egypt.
Moreover, not only did Yaakov himself study, he involved his children and grandchildren. Rather than accept the values of the surrounding culture, Yaakov’s descendants joined him in study. For them, the descent to Egypt represented a radical transition; the majority of their adult lives had been spent in Eretz Yisrael. Yet motivated by Yaakov’s example and guidance, they were able to extend the holy atmosphere of Eretz Yisrael into Egypt.
Yaakov’s unchanging and uninterrupted commitment to the Torah demonstrates the true life with which the Torah endowed him. His connection with G-d was all-encompassing.
Yaakov Still Lives
The above enables us to understand why the Torah reading is named Vayechi “And he lived” although it speaks of Yaakov’s death. As the events of the reading demonstrate, Yaakov’s life was one of connection to G-d that transcended material settings. And since he shared this quality with his descendants, it was perpetuated beyond his mortal lifetime. As our Sages say: “Yaakov, our ancestor, did not die. As his descendants are alive, he is alive.”
This concept applies to all Jews at all times. The vitality we experience in our Divine service today is made possible by the life of Yaakov our ancestor. And conversely, the connection to the Torah which strengthened Yaakov is the source of life for all his descendants throughout the generations.
True, within Jewish history, there have always been some Jews who at least to outward appearances do not conduct their lives according to the directives of the Torah. But that is merely the external reality. The truth is that they are alive inside, and their vitality stems from the Torah and its mitzvos.
Our Sages state: “Although a Jew sins, he remains a Jew” and the Rambam rules:
A person whose evil inclination compels him to negate the performance of a mitzvah or to commit a sin… [still] wishes to be part of the Jewish people and desires to fulfill all the mitzvos and separate himself from sin. It is only his [evil] inclination which forces him [to do otherwise].
Regardless of his conduct, every member of our people remains a Jew and shares a connection to the entire Torah. “The Torah which Moshe commanded us is the heritage of the congregation of Yaakov.” This is the spiritual legacy which Yaakov bequeathed us, the sign of his continued life and of our own vitality.
(The above also encourages us to help each other express a connection to the Torah. Any potential tends to seek expression, and that tendency is enhanced by the very knowledge of its existence. Spreading the awareness of the inner nature of every Jew will spur the desire to have that nature realized through observance of the Torah.
This is more than theory; it is borne out by experience. Conversely, an approach which castigates Jews who do not observe the Torah and its mitzvos, threatening them with Divine retribution, does not encourage greater observance. Quite the contrary, it weakens many people’s feeling for Judaism and moves them further from teshuvah.)
Egypt is not Forever
Although his ability to create a Torah center for his descendants in Egypt is a sign of Yaakov’s life, it is not the culmination of his achievements. For the ultimate place for Yaakov and his descendants is not in Egypt, but in Eretz Yisrael.
Therefore, Yaakov called his sons together with the intent of revealing the time of the Redemption to them. He assured them that they would be redeemed from Egypt, promising: “G-d will be with you, and He will bring you back to your ancestral land.” For it is in Eretz Yisrael and more particularly, in the Eretz Yisrael of the Redemption that Yaakov and his descendants will truly flourish.
Strength and Encouragement
This Shabbos is called Shabbos Chazak, “the Shabbos of reinforcement,” because of the custom of declaring, Chazak, Chazak, Vinischazaik (“Be strong, be strong, and may you be strengthened”) at the conclusion of the Torah reading, in acknowledgment of the completion of the Book of Genesis.
The awareness nurtured by the reading of Vayechi generates strength. When a Jew knows he has been granted a heritage of life expressed through a connection with the Torah, and that there will come a time when this connection will blossom, he will acquire the inner strength to confront the challenges presented by his environment.
By heightening the expression of this potential in our people as a whole, we hasten the coming of its fruition in the Era of the Redemption. May this take place in the immediate future.