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Torah Reflections

Vayekhi: On Being Old and Satisfied

This week’s reading, Vayekhi, is the last portion in the book of Genesis. The tale of Joseph is concluded, and Jacob–the last of the patriarchs–dies in Egypt, surrounded by his offspring:

Jacob finished commanding his sons, and he gathered up his feet into the bed, and expired and was gathered to his people. (Genesis 49:33)

It’s a simple, but powerful description of the death of an important figure. But there’s more–or perhaps less–to this description than meets the eye. Consider the following verses that describe the deaths of Jacob’s father and grandfather:

Abraham expired and died in a good old age, old and satisfied, and he was gathered to his people. (Genesis 25:8)

 Isaac expired and died and was gathered to his people, old and satisfied with days… (Genesis 35:29)

While all three of them expired and were gathered to their people, only Abraham and Isaac are described as old and satisfied. Frankly, this omission doesn’t surprise me.

Digging deeper into Vayekhi

As part of my research for this reflection, I took a close look at each of Jacob’s utterances in the book of Genesis. I then labeled each communication on the basis of its purpose. I discovered something interesting: Jacob was three times more likely to negotiate, demand, agonize or complain than to praise, bless or give thanks. In other words, Jacob was quite a curmudgeon.

Jacob’s response to a question from Pharaoh toward the end of his life provides a perfect example:

Pharaoh said to Jacob, “How many are the days of the years of your life?” Jacob said to Pharaoh, “The days of the years of my sojourn are one hundred thirty years; few and miserable have been days and years of my life, and they have not reached the days and years of the lives of my forefathers lives in the days of their sojourns.” (Genesis 47:8-9)

No wonder he’s not described as satisfied!

Old and satisfied

I spend a fair amount of time with elderly people. Some are in relatively good health; others are not. Some are always grumpy and others are remarkably cheerful. You would think that there would be some kind of correlation between physical well being and outlook on life, but that’s not necessarily the case.

I’ve known some of these folks for decades. With the exception of those who have experienced personality changes from dementia or stroke, the curmudgeons are still grumpy and the content folks are still pretty cheerful. I realize that a person’s outlook is influenced by innumerable variables, but I’m pretty darn sure that the mental habits of a lifetime are part of the equation.

When I come to the end of my own days, I hope that I can accurately be described as old and satisfied.  I may have already achieved the “old” part–although my 80- and 90-year old students would strongly disagree. If I’m lucky, and if I take reasonably good care of myself, I will reach a good old age. But satisfaction is an altogether different matter. Fortunately, I’ve been working on it for a while.

Cultivating contentment

One of my favorite definitions of contentment comes from a scroll that hangs in our meditation room. “Contentment”, it reads, is the ability “to hold onto and to let go of everything all at once”.  I love this description because it encapsulates much of what I’ve learned from my meditation practice. I’ve seen the truth of impermanence in a visceral and incontestable way. I’ve discovered the deep peace and true contentment that comes from letting it all go.

I don’t know whether Abraham and Isaac practiced meditation. Some say that they did, and there are verses that support this view. But as far as I can tell, there is no evidence to suggest that Jacob had any form of contemplative practice. Maybe that’s why his life ended as it did. And maybe–just maybe–my life will end differently because I do.

May you be blessed…

May you be blessed to cultivate contentment from this moment forward. May your practice bear fruit, now and throughout your life. And may you live to a ripe old age, and pass from this life satisfied and content with your days.

Ameyn, ken yehi ratzon. Amen, may it be so.

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