The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, of righteous memory, notes that Jacob’s 147 years can be divided into three general periods:

  1. The first 77 years of his life were spent in the Holy Land, secluded in “the tents of study” and sheltered from the entanglements of material life.
  2. These were followed by 20 years in Haran, in the employ of Laban, during which Jacob married, fathered 12 of his 13 children, and amassed much material wealth.
  3. Following a further period in the Holy Land, Jacob “descended” to Egypt, where he lived for the last 17 years of his life.

The years that Jacob dwelled in the Holy Land were years of tranquil perfection—years in which nothing alien to his soul intruded upon his life of Torah study, prayer and service of G‑d.

In contrast, Jacob’s sojourn in Haran was characterized by challenge and struggle. In Haran, Jacob locked horns with “Laban the Deceiver” and bested him at his own game. To marry and support his family, he worked to exhaustion, as “heat consumed me by day, and frost at night; and sleep was banished from my eyes” (Genesis 31:40). In the words of Esau’s angel to Jacob upon Jacob’s return from Haran, “You have struggled with G‑d and with men, and have prevailed” (ibid. 32:29).

These, however, were struggles in which Jacob held his own, and in which he eventually triumphed. But in the 17 years he lived in Egypt, Jacob experienced, for the first time in his life, a state of true galut—subjugation to an alien environment. In Egypt, Jacob was compelled to pay homage to Pharaoh, the arch-idol and demigod of the land (see Gen. 47:7–10). Upon Jacob’s passing in Egypt, his body was for 40 days in the possession of the Egyptian “physicians,” who embalmed it after their custom. Indeed, one of the reasons Jacob commanded Joseph to bury him in the Holy Land (a feat which required much maneuvering and manipulation to secure Pharaoh’s consent) was that he feared that, in Egypt, his body and gravesite would become an object of idolatry.

After a lifetime in which he either inhabited his own sanctum of hermetic holiness or struggled against adversity, Jacob’s Egyptian years were a time of subjugation to a society which the Torah calls “the depravity of the earth.”

And yet, the Torah regards these 17 years as the very best years of Jacob’s life! For Jacob knew to exploit his galut in Egypt to drive the strivings of his soul and further its aims. Indeed, it was in Egypt, under the rule and subsequent enslavement of the pharaohs, that Jacob’s descendants were forged into the people of Israel.

“Everything that happened to the Patriarchs,” writes Nachmanides in his commentary on the Book of Genesis, “is a signpost for their children. This is why the Torah elaborates its account of their journeys, their well-digging and the other events [of their lives] . . . these all come as an instruction for the future: for when something happens to one of the three Patriarchs, one understands from it what is decreed to occur to his descendants.”

For we, too, experience in the course of our lifetimes the three states of being which Jacob knew: sovereignty, struggle, and subjugation.

We each harbor a vision of a transcendent self—of a soul, pure and inviolable, at the core of our being. This self, we are convinced, is not subject to the caprice of circumstance, and remains forever aloof from the shifting dictates of society and convention. And though this core self is not always accessible to us, there come moments in our lives—“moments of truth,” we call them—in which it asserts its will over every and any influence save its own internal truth.

But these moments, for most of us, are few and far between. More often, we are in a state of struggle—struggles with our environment, struggles with our own habits and behavior patterns, struggles with the passions of our divided hearts.

A state of struggle indicates that we have not attained full mastery over our existence; but it is also a sign that we are free. We are resisting the forces that seek to sway us from our internal truth; we are engaging them and battling them. Indeed, this is life at its fullest and most productive—even more so, in a certain sense, than those “moments of truth” of resolute perfection.

But we also know times of powerlessness and subordination. Times when we are faced with circumstances which we have the ability neither to control nor to even resist; times when it seems that life has been stopped dead in its tracks, arrested by an impregnable wall of helplessness and despair.

“Everything that happened to the Patriarchs . . . is decreed to occur to their descendants.” Not that they occur in exactly the same manner. Our own moments of transcendence seem fleeting and inconsequential in comparison with Jacob’s decades of tranquil perfection in the Holy Land; our own struggles seem wan and inept when measured against Jacob’s Haran years; our own lives under circumstances of subjugation and oppression seem black indeed when set against Jacob’s Egyptian period. Yet the three lives of Jacob are “signposts” that guide, inspire and enable our own.

Jacob’s life in the Holy Land empowers us to experience moments of true freedom—moments in which we assert our true will over all forces, both external and internal, that seek to quell it.

Jacob’s Haran years inspire and enable us to not only persevere in our struggles but to revel in them, to experience them as vibrant and exhilarating periods in our lives.

And Jacob’s Egyptian period teaches us how to deal with those situations in which we feel overpowered by forces beyond our control. It teaches us that these times, too, are part and parcel of our lives: that these times, too, can be negotiated with wisdom, dignity and integrity. That these times, too, can be realized as vital and productive seasons of our lives.