Jacob spends the last seventeen years of his life in Egypt, where he lives under the patronage of his son, Joseph, the Grand Vizier of Egypt, second only to Pharaoh. Parashat Vayechi begins with the words [Bereishit 47:28] “Jacob lived for seventeen years in the land of Egypt, so that the span of Jacob’s life came to one hundred and forty-seven years.” Rabbi Yisrael Yitzchak (Yish”ai) Chasida, who lived in Israel in the previous century, notices something that appeals to the engineer inside of me. Jacob’s lifespan is stated as “Seven years and forty years and one hundred years”, or, in mathematical notation, 7 + 40 + 100 years: Units (years) are followed by tens (decades), which are followed by hundreds (centuries). Rabbi Chasida contrasts this numerical format with the format that the Torah uses for the lifespans of the other biblical figures. Sarah lived [Bereishit 23:1] “One hundred years and twenty years and seven years”, or, in mathematical notation, 100 + 20 + 7 years: Centuries followed by decades followed by years. Similarly, Abraham lived [Bereishit 25:7] “One hundred years and seventy years and five years”, or, in mathematical notation, 100 + 70 + 5 years: Centuries followed by decades followed by years. The years of Isaac follow the same format [Bereishit 35:28]: “One hundred years and eighty years”, or, in mathematical notation, 100 + 80 + 0 years: Centuries followed by decades followed by years. Why does the Torah use a different – reverse – format when describing Jacob’s lifespan?
To address this question, we require some background. A Torah scroll is formatted into “parshiot” – “portions”. Two types of portions are defined: an “open (p’tucha) portion” and a “closed (s’gura) portion”. An open portion begins on a new line while a closed portion begins on the same line, separated from the previous portion by a white space of at least nine letters. Each weekly sidra starts with a new portion, either open or closed. The one exception to this rule is Parashat Vayechi. It is hermetically sealed (s’tuma), following immediately after the last word of Parashat Vayigash without any white space. Rashi, the most eminent of the medieval commentators, who lived in France in the eleventh century, writes, “Why is this section completely closed? Because, comprising as it does an account of the death of Jacob, as soon as our father Jacob departed this life, the hearts and eyes of Israel were closed because of the misery of the bondage which [the Egyptians] then began to impose upon them.” Rabbi Jacob ben Asher, known as the “Ba’al HaTurim”, who lived in Spain at the turn of the fourteenth century, elaborates on Rashi’s explanation: “This alludes to the fact that as soon as Jacob had closed his eyes for the last time, the ability of the Jewish people to look into the future with any sense of confidence and assurance had vanished”. The Ba’al HaTurim takes the concept of “closure” another step, asserting that just like Parashat Vayigash seamlessly slides into Parashat Vayechi, Jacob and his children seamlessly slid into exile: “The sons of Jacob brought about their exile in Egypt themselves through having sold their brother Joseph to Egypt. Jacob descended there under the impression that he would be saved there due to his beloved son occupying such an illustrious position in a country that was not severely damaged by the famine. The brothers themselves had declared that they had only come to Egypt for a brief stay, expecting to return to Canaan as soon as the famine had come to an end. And yet, this is not how things worked out. The exile in Egypt dragged on for one reason or another, and even Jacob himself was only brought back to the land of Israel after he died”. Jacob and his family needed to stay in Egypt for only five years, until the famine that brought them there had come to an end. And yet, for some reason, they did not return home. They remained in Egypt. No further positive action on their behalf was required to trigger the exile. Once set in motion, things just happened through the force of inertia, until it was too late.
It is interesting to note that the Torah does not reveal Jacob’s lifespan immediately prior to his death, as it does for the other forefathers. Rather, it does so right after the informing us that Jacob spent the last years of his life in Egypt. Indeed, Jacob continues to live on for nearly two more chapters. This is not coincidental. I suggest that the format of Jacob’s lifespan – years that turned into decades that turned into centuries – is a metaphor for the gradual descent into exile that Jacob and his family underwent in Egypt. Compare this with Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac, whose lives represented disruptive change, their trajectories represented by lifespans beginning with centuries, a quantum chronological leap.
Let us kick this hypothesis further down the road. At the end of Parashat Bereishit, the Torah presents the lineage of the ten generations between Adam and Noah. The lifespan of each person appears in the same format: years followed by decades followed by centuries. At the end of Parashat Noach, the Torah presents the lineage of the ten generations between Noach and Abraham. Again, all of the lifespans appear in the same format: years followed by decades followed by centuries. The Mishna in Tractate Avot [5:3] teaches “[There were] ten generations from Adam to Noah, in order to make known what long-suffering is His; for all those generations kept on provoking Him, until He brought upon them the waters of the flood. [There were] ten generations from Noah to Abraham, in order to make known what long-suffering is His; for all those generations kept on provoking Him, until Abraham, came and received the reward of all of them.” During the ten generations between Adam and Noah and the ten generations between Noah and Abraham, mankind underwent a gradual slide into the abyss of sin. Noah gave mankind only a temporary reprieve and hence his lifespan [Bereishit 9:29] also appears in the years-decades-centuries format. Abraham, the first person to publically espouse monotheism in the face of global idolatry, was something completely new. He came out of nowhere and “received the reward of all of them”. Correspondingly, his lifespan appears in the centuries-decades-years format.
After pointing out the gradual descent into the Egyptian exile experienced by Jacob and his family, the Ba’al HaTurim notes that the descent of the Jewish People into our current two-millennium exile was eerily similar: “Something very similar happened during the later years of the Hasmonean reign when two brothers [Aristoblus and Hyrcanus] vied for the position of King, and [Hyrcanus], who did not succeed by his own strength, called in the Romans to support him politically and militarily. They did, but they never left the country again after King Agrippas took refuge with them. Eventually, due to famine in Jerusalem after years of siege, the defenders of Jerusalem were captured and until this day we are enduring this Roman exile”. On the one hand, this is a sad accusation: we did not learn from our mistakes. And yet, it should give us hope. As the Jewish People prepare to leave Egypt, the Torah reveals the length of their exile [Shemot 12:40] “The length of time that the Israelites lived in Egypt was thirty years and four hundred years” – years followed by decades followed by centuries. The Egyptian exile ended gradually: it required ten plagues followed by forty years of wandering in the desert until the Jewish People finally returned to the Land of Israel. If our current exile is similar to the Egyptian exile in the gradual way they both began, then it is logical to posit that the two exiles will be similar in the way they end. Our redemption will also be a gradual process. The Third Temple will not miraculously fall out of the sky – we must build it, brick by brick. But build it, we will, and build it, we do.
Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5782
Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Eli bat Ilana, and Geisha bat Sara.
 The Torah does not mention the deaths of Rebecca or Leah, and Rachel’s lifespan is not recorded.
 Rabbi Chasida proposes an answer to his question in “Karmei Yisrael”. Another answer is proposed by Rabbi Shimon Klein from Yeshivat Har Etzion at this link: https://www.etzion.org.il/en/tanakh/torah/sefer-bereishit/parashat-vayechi/numbering-years-life.
 The division of the Torah into chapters is attributed to Christian monks in the 13th century.
 We use the English explanation of the Ba’al HaTurim from the Sefaria web site.
 See, for instance, Bereishit [5:17].
 Rabbi Eliyahu Zinni told us that the Hasmonean Dynasty was utterly wiped out as retribution for inviting the Romans into Israel (and not because they usurped the throne from the descendants of King David).
 Out of those 430 years, only 210 were spent in Egypt.
 See Rambam Hilchot Beit HaBechira at length.