The title of our parshah is a veritable oxymoron. It is called “Vayehi,” (“And he lived”), while in actuality – “everybody” dies in this parshah. Jacob dies, Joseph dies, and in the haftarah – the prophetic reading – King David dies. All three led dramatic and intense lives. Like all of us – Jacob, Joseph, and King David were, in Nietzsche’s words “human, all too human.” They made mistakes, and at times even mistreated people. Jacob’s ways in his youth, especially the way he obtained his brother’s birthright, were questionable in the eyes of many. As a parent, Jacob made it all-too-pervasive to his other children, that Joseph was his favorite son. Joseph himself was an arrogant and narcissistic youth. And King David sent another man to his death, in the frontlines of the battlefields, so that he could marry his wife.
We all fall short and make mistakes. Sometimes grave mistakes. That’s what Philosopher Immanuel Kant had in mind, when he described humanity’s moral and ethical capacities, as akin to a “crooked timber,” or a warped piece of wood, which could never be fully rendered perfectly symmetrical and straight.
Secondly, Jacob, Joseph, and King David, in addition to having shortcomings and deficiencies like all of us, in addition to having made mistakes and at times even mistreated people, they also had their fair share of heartache, pain, anguish and loss – like all of us. But despite all that, their spirit never faltered. Their basic orientation remained to affirm life in all its tumultuous vicissitudes. They were ultimately givers, and not takers. They left lasting legacies of resilience, piety, contribution, altruism, and dedication to the common good.
While they were far from perfect, they were indeed exemplary. Spiritually, they remain with us. As the Talmud observes – those who leave a positive impact upon this world – continue to live after they pass away, in the sense that the positive reverberations of their healing and sacred acts continue to permeate the world, long after they are physically no more. Socrates observed that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”
The Torah postulates that life is about what you bestow, not about what you accumulate. Jacob, Joseph, and King David, left behind them lasting legacies of dedication to the common good. Theirs was a life of service to humanity and God. They bestowed upon us values and visions that continue to enrich the lives of multitudes, and further usher humanity towards lasting healing and redemption. To live a good life, imply our sages, is thus not about being perfect, or about leading an error-free existence. Nor is it about leading a life bereft of pain and loss. That’s not possible. Rather, it is about the human capacity for resilience, for self-overcoming, and it is about an indefatigable spiritual striving to evolve and to grow in soul – in order to be a blessing to others, and a cathartic healing presence, as best we can, to any human being who comes across our path, in the middle of this road we call our life.