Chaim = Life

Insights into “Word Concepts” in Torah. The Torah Portion of VaYechi, Genesis 47:28–50:26

Moshe Kempinski

Judaism Vote for the covenant' : Torah scroll at Kotel
Vote for the covenant' : Torah scroll at Kotel
צילום: PR

The Torah portion begins with the words  "And Jacob lived -

VaYeChi  in the land of Egypt for seventeen years, and Jacob's days, the years of his life, were a hundred and forty seven years."(Genesis 47:28)

There are many other words that could have been used to describe the fact that Jacob dwelled in the land of Egypt. Why does the Torah specifically use the word VaYechi( and he lived).

The word Chaim- Life is deeply instructive. It does not denote simple existence , or even the opposite of Death. It seems to imply much more depth and purpose.

In the book of Deuteronomy we read the following;

And He afflicted you and let you go hungry, and then fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your forefathers know, so that He would make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but rather by, whatever comes forth from the mouth of Hashem does man live (Yichyeh- a derivative of Chaim) .(Deuteronomy 8:3)

This implies that life is not a function of the physical sustenance of the bread we eat but rather it is linked to the utterances of G-d. How does that work?

Perhaps to understand this we need to look at the alternative.

The Torah tells us that when one encounters a dead body he or she enters into a state of TUMAH-defined as impurity. The Torah also describes the impact of the natural monthly discharge NIDDAH of a woman is an entry into a period of Tumah. Is Tumah, then a state of uncleanliness, or perhaps some deeper state of un-holiness.

That clearly cannot be the case.

Yet when an individual encounters “death”, his or her soul is scarred. The state of Impurity or Tumah. is the result of our confrontation with the fact of our own mortality, and of our physicality. It is the result our dealing with specter of losing potential and ending the power to grow. That is true of death and in many ways is also true of an ovum that will not produce life. That too is a state of un-fulfilled possibility, of deferred potential. That is the essence of “Death”. The curtailment of growth and potential.

Taharah, or Purity  on the other hand, represents the reaffirmation of our connection to the infinite. It represents the potential for growth and sanctification. It represents the essence of  true potential filled  Life-Chaim.

When Jacob was in mourning for the loss of his son, the mourning limited him and threatened to extinguish his potential for further spiritual growth. Yet when Jacob discovers that his beloved son is still alive there is a dramatic transformation.

 And they told him, saying, "Joseph is still alive," and [they told him] that he ruled over the entire land of Egypt, and his heart changed, for he did not believe them.And they told him all of Joseph's words that he had said to them, and he saw the wagons that Joseph had sent to carry him, and the spirit of their father Jacob was revived.(Genesis 45:26-27)

The transformation is dramatic as the text ceases to call him Jacob but transforms into the more destiny based name of Israel;

"And Israel said, "Enough! My son Joseph is still alive. I will go and see him before I die.""( ibid :28)

As a result the Torah tells us “"And Jacob lived VaYeChi  in the land of Egypt for seventeen years”

The sages describe the statement of “And Jacob lived VaYeChi”

“Rabbi Yochanan stated, ‘Our father Jacob did not die.’ Rabbi Nachman asked, ‘Was it in vain that they eulogized Jacob and embalmed his body and buried him?’ Rabbi Yochanan responded, ‘I derive this from a verse: ‘Fear not, Jacob My servant... for I will save you from afar, and your offspring from the land of their captivity’ (Jeremiah 30:10). The verse likens Jacob to his offspring: just as his offspring lives, so too, Jacob lives.'” (Ta’anit 5b)

Is that it? Just because his offspring are alive, therefore Jacob continues to live?

Perhaps the simple truth is that  because his offspring are alive and continue in his ways and are living and growing out of  his teachings. That  is the point of Rabbi Yochanan’s statement , ‘Our father Jacob did not die”

What then is the deepest level of Life-Chaim?

The Torah portion of “Nitzavim” contains the famous commandment to choose life( Chaim). ;

 “I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse: therefore choose life (Chaim) ” (Deut. 30:19)


We are commanded to choose life, Our physical continuation and cessation of existence is not within our grasp .Yet the quality of that existence clearly is. " therefore choose life-Ba-Chaim" .

That therefore is the whole reason of our being brought into creation.

“And Hashem God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life (Nishmat Chaim) ; and man became a living soul( Nefesh Chaya) (Genesis 2:7:)

Our purpose then is to become that "living soul (Nefesh Chaya) . A soul that is constantly yearning to grow. A soul that is earnestly yearning to fill one’s days with meaning.

When speaking of Hashem’s wisdom and Torah , King Solomon writes in the book of proverbs.

It is a tree of life (Eitz Ha-Chaim) for those who grasp it, and those who draw near it are fortunate.(Proverbs 3:18).

Those who grasp it and understand its inner treasures and infinite possibilities, truly are fortunate for they have discovered the secret of “Life-Chaim”

LeRefuat Yehudit bat Golda Yocheved and Yehudit bat Chaya Esther