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Vayechi and the Meaning of Life

Updated: Dec 26, 2023

We come to the final parsha in the book of Genesis- Vayechi- And he lived, referring to the patriarch Jacob. It is ironic that there are two Torah portions that have the word “chai”- meaning life- in their names.  The other one is Chayai Sarah, The life of Sarah.  Chayai Sarah tells us about Sarah’s death, and the week we read about Jacob’s final days and his death and burial.  So what do we learn from this?

I don’t think that the Torah is suggesting that we be over-occupied with death.   I do think that we need to focus on what is most important in life, what are we living for and how do we hope to be remembered?  What will be our legacy at the end of OUR lives?  Will it be said of us as it was of Jacob, that we truly lived?   That we made each day count?  I sometimes joke that I like to get a day and a half out of each day, and my family knows that I want my headstone to read, “You can’t do it all but you can die trying.”

Not that I am recommending living life in a frenzy of non-stop activity.  I treasure Shabbat as the weekly antidote to a very full schedule.  Shabbat is a vital part of my spiritual practice, a day to restore a sense of balance and focus.  A day to reflect on how we make our lives meaningful.  I believe that the goal of life is to continually elevate our souls and to cultivate the qualities of kindness, generosity, compassion that touch every one of our interactions.  If we can truly see each person we encounter as an image of God, the world will be a better place for our having lived in it.  Rambam suggests that we imagine the world as suspended between good and evil, and we have the ability to shift that balance through the actions we choose.  Some of us may have an impact in our own family and community circles, others may impact major social changes.  It is up to each of us to make meaning wherever we find ourselves, to bloom where we are planted.

Is it curious that in Jewish tradition we remember our deceased loved ones not on their birthdays, but on their yahrtzeits?  The rabbis offer the analogy of a ship leaving on a perilous journey.  Well-wishers stand on the shore to bid farewell.  Yet, the rabbis suggest, it is only when the ship returns safely to the harbor that we should truly rejoice.  Thus it is, they conclude, with our lives.  It is only at the end of our days that we truly know what a person’s life was about, who they were in the essence of their being and how they made a difference. Then we can say, as was said of Jacob, “Vayechi,” “he truly lived.”


What is the meaning of life?  The meaning of life is that it ends.   How are we spending the most precious gift of all, the gift of time?  As the book of Genesis draws to a close, as the year 2018 draws to a close, it is worth asking ourselves if we are truly living a life that expresses the values we hold most dear, and, if not, what can we do to make the changes that are in our hearts?

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