The Torah portion of VaYechi
discusses the final years of Yaakov’s life which he spent in Egypt. During that time he experienced no troubles,
saw the rapid growth of his family (see Gen. 47:27)—some say that they numbered 600,000 at the time of his death
–and he studied Torah with his grandson Efrayim.
The Torah writes (Gen. 47:28), “And Yaakov lived in Egypt for 17 years and Yaakov’s days, the years of his life, were 147 years.” The beginning of this verse seems unnecessary as it is a matter of simple calculation since the Torah already informed us that Yaakov was 130 when he came to Egypt (Gen. 47:9) and is telling us here that he lived 147 years. The Ohr HaChaim explains that the Torah alludes to the fact that these years were the only ones he truly lived as during the rest of his life he was continually plagued by various troubles (i.e., Eisav, Lavan, Dinah and the sale of Yosef).
The Ba’al HaTurim writes that Yaakov merited these 17 good years (during which he was supported by Yosef) because he supported Yosef for the first 17 years of his son’s life.
The Ba’al HaTurim points out that the Gematriya (numerical value) of וַיְחִ֤י Vayechi is 34. By writing “Vayechi Yaakov” (and Yaakov lived), the Torah is alludes to the fact that Yaakov experienced a good life for 34 years. These were the first 17 years of Yosef’s life (before he was sold) and the final 17 years of Yaakov’s life during which Yaakov was able to spend time with his favorite son, Yosef.
This article will discuss some Torah teachings that relate to old age and the laws of standing up for an elderly person.
Time for Teshuvah
Rabbeinu Yonah writes (Sha’arei Teshuvah, Sha’ar 2:4 and on), “When a person reaches old age and has less strength and his yetzer hara (evil inclination) is weakened, he should remember that his end is near, and he should think about what will follow (this life) and should return to G-d and He will have mercy. One who does not do teshuvah at this time will receive a double punishment… as our sages said that G-d hates an old man who acts immorally… It is a wonder that people see that their years and strength are decreasing yet their eyes are blind from seeing and their hearts from understanding (and they don’t do teshuvah). Don’t they realize that they are traveling to their eternal resting place? Every single day they are getting closer to it.”
“Our sages say (Avot 5:21), ‘Sixty years for sagacity, seventy years for elderliness, eighty years, for power, ninety years to stoop, a hundred-year-old is as one who has died and passed away.’ Their intention in writing this is to warn us to do teshvah when one reaches old age if he didn’t do so when he was young. Now that one’s time is near, one should leave the desires of his body and its pleasures and instead adorn his soul. The less years one (feels he) has left, the more one should retire from physical involvements and spend time alone thinking about the fear of Heaven. He should think about himself, fix his character traits, and seek out Torah and Mitzvot to fulfill.”
Time for Torah
The Alter Rebbe writes (Hilchot Talmud Torah 3:4), “Even one who experiences suffering or is very elderly and weak and cannot study Torah constantly it still obligated to study Torah day and night to the extent of his strength and ability.” This may be based on the Mishnah (Avot 5:21) that says וסיב ובלה בה – grow old and worn in it (the Torah). The Vilna Gaon (on that Mishnah) writes that the word “סיב” is related to the word ,שיבה , i.e., even as one reaches the age of 70 and beyond, one should continue to study Torah.
Talk about Death
The Torah relates how Yaakov called Yosef and instructed him to make sure he (Yaakov) was buried in Israel. The Yalkut Me’am Loez points out that Yaakov didn’t hesitate to talk about his passing away as this is way of tzadikim (righteous people). They recognize that the World to Come is their permanent abode and that all of their “labor” in this world is so that they achieve that level in the afterlife. They do not fear death and see it like a door which brings them to a better place.
Writing a Will
The Sefer HaBrit, published in 1797 by Rabbi Pinchas Eliyahu Horowitz of Vilna, writes (2nd section, chapter 16),
“It is proper for a person to write a will while he is still healthy. It is best to do so when one begins to make money. There is no reason to delay this as there is nothing more sure than death. Every year one should rewrite it (or amend it) as appropriate. In it one should record all of the people to whom he owes money and all of those who owe him money. He should leave some money to tzedaka or to a tzedaka fund which will distribute it over time. He should leave the will in the possession of a trustworthy person. The will can also include instructions to his family as to how they should behave righteously after his passing and words of encouragement – that they should believe in G-d and have faith in Him and follow the path of Torah and Mitzvot.”
Instructions to the Family
“When a person gets sick and feels that the end of his life is near, he should inform his family of the will and instruct them to follow what it says. He should also encourage them to strengthen their observance of Mitzvot. This will bring great merit to his soul in the afterlife.”
The Pele Yo’etz writes (entry Choleh), “The time of a person’s final illness is opportune to speak to one’s children about going in the path of G-d. One’s words at this time will be followed as children observe their parents final wishes even more than they observe the Ten Commandments. One shouldn’t pay attention to family members who say that talking about death is a bad omen. On the contrary, discussing these matters revive the dead (i.e., they lead to greater mitzvah observance in which merit one may extend one’s life).”
70 for Old Age
As mentioned above, the Mishnah says that, בן שבעים לשיבה, at the age of 70 one reaches old age. This is derived from the verse (Divrei HaYamim I 29:28) that says that King David passed away BeSeiva Tova – in a good old age. We know that King David passed away at the age of 70 because he became king at the age of 30 (Shmuel II, 2:4) and he ruled for 40 years (Divrei HaYamim 29:27).
The word שיבה is related to the word שביעה which means to be satisfied. Since 70 is considered a complete life span (see Tehillim 90:10) when one reaches that age they are considered complete.
The Me’iri (on Avot ibid) explains that at the age of 70, people are considered old and as such they should separate themselves from worldly matters and devote their time to serving G-d.
Respect for Those Cleaving To G-d
The Torah instructs us (Levit. 19:32) to respect and stand up for a Torah scholar of any age and for everyone else when they reach the age of seventy as long as they are not wicked (see Yoreh De’ah 244:1).
The Sefat Emet (Parshat Chayei Sara, year 5645) explains that Torah scholars achieve deveikut, cleaving to G-d, throughout their lives, and we must therefore respect them even from a young age. A regular person can also achieve this deveikut by leading a full life (70 years) of a Torah lifestyle (or doing Teshuvah and thus rectifying those years). It is because of this deveikut that one must respect a person who reaches the age of 70.
Details of the Mitzvah of Standing Up (Yoreh De’ah 244)
- One should stand up for someone who is 70 years or older. If an elderly person is walking by, one should stand up when he or she reaches within one’s four amot (approximately 6 feet) until they pass you by.
- According to the Arizal one should stand up for someone who is 60 years old. (Even HaShoham Y.D. 244.) This is based on an alternate version of the above-mentioned Mishnah that reads בן שישים לשיבה בן שבעים לזקנה – The age of 60 is that of old age and the age of 70 of the age of sagacity.
- One should rise completely and not just a little bit.
- A Torah scholar need only stand up slightly for an elderly person to show respect.
- One should also show respect to an elderly gentile and give him a hand to support him as needed.
- One need not stand for an elderly person in a bathroom or a place where people are usually not clothed, e.g., the inner room of a mikvah.
- An elderly person need not stand up completely for another elderly person but should get up slightly in order to show respect.
May Hashem grant us long years in order to serve G-d with a pure heart!
 Bereishit Rabbah 96:1
 Ibid 79:1.The words of the Midrash are “Yaakov did not die until he saw 600,000 descendants.: It is difficult to understand this Midrash if they already reached that number within 17 years of entering Egypt why did those numbers not increase between that time and the time of the Exodus? Some of the commentaries (Eitz Yosef and Pirush Maharzu) interpret the Midrash to mean that Yaakov only saw the 600,000 descendants prophetically but not actually. Others say (Yedei Moshe) that the Jewish people increased six fold before the exodus but that 5/6ths of them perished in the days leading up to the Exodus.
According to another Midrash (quoted by the Ba’al HaTurim in the beginning of the Parsha) Yaakov had “only” 30,000 descendants during his lifetime.
 See Rashi on Gen. 48:1
 Mavo to the Tiferet Yisrael of the Maharal HaMevu’ar pg. 20
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom UMevorach!