Often the difference between great writing and good writing is word choice. Using just the right word can make the ordinary extraordinary. Harold Evans, in his latest book, Do I Make Myself Clear? describes how Franklin Delano Roosevelt agonized over each and every word in his request for Congress to declare war against Japan on December 8, 1941. His second draft began: “Yesterday, December 7, 1941, a date which will live in world history…” While his speech was being retyped, FDR came up with just the right word to express the vileness of the Japanese attack deserving of universal reproach. And so the text was emended to the memorable phrase “a date which will live in infamy.”
This parashah also includes evidence of an insightful word choice. Rather than describing Jacob’s residence in Egypt the last period of his life with the more appropriate “va-yagar (like “vayagar Avraham b’eretz Plishtim,” Gen. 21:34 ) or the common “va-yeshev” (like “va-yeshev Avraham b’v’er sheva,” Gen. 22:19 or “va-yeshev Ya’akov b’eretz m’gurei aviv,” Gen. 37:1 or “vayeshev Yitzhak im b’er lahai ro’i,” Gen. 25:11 or “vayeshev Yitzhak bi-gerar,” Gen. 26:6) the Torah puts it: “Va-yehi Ya’akov b’eretz mitzrayim.” This surprising word choice led Professor Nahum Sarna to make the observation that the emphasis on “living” suggests that for Jacob something had died within him when Joseph disappeared. Now, reunited, Jacob’s spirit revived. In essence, his life was renewed in Egypt together with his beloved son.
Likewise, Rabbi Dr. J. H. Hertz (on Genesis 47:28) notices the unusual word choice of “va-yehi.” This leads him to ask: “Of how few men…can we repeat a phrase like “and Jacob lived?” And in answer, Rabbi Hertz adds: “Only he who has been a force for human goodness, and abides in hearts and souls made better by his presence during his pilgrimage on earth, can be said to have lived, only such a one is heir to immortality.”
I would add that it is especially apt that the Torah uses the word “va-yehi” emphasizing Jacob’s life because it was Jacob himself who, appearing before Pharaoh, dismissed his life as relatively poor and unhappy (Gen. 47:9). It is a kind of delicious irony that the Torah confutes Jacob’s own evaluation. Jacob thought his life to be miserable. But we know it to be otherwise. Jacob thought his years too few compared to his father and grandfather. But he misjudged. As arguably the most intellectual of all American politicians, Adlai Stevenson, once observed: “It is not the years in your life but the life in your years that count.”
Jacob made his years count. Jacob lived. May we do the same.