Life Preservation and Extension

Parshat Vayigash begins in Genesis 44:18 with Judah begging Joseph for mercy and ends in Genesis 47:27 with Israel and his whole family settled in Egypt to wait out the remaining years of famine and there, according to the promise of God, become a great nation.
A theme within Vayigash is the preservation of life. In Genesis 45:5-7, Joseph tells his brothers that God sent him to Egypt to “preserve life” and to save them alive for a great deliverance. Joseph promised to sustain the life of Jacob in Genesis 45:11 if he would come and be with him.
Age figures prominently within the text. Genesis 44:20 refers to Benjamin, the child of Jacob’s old age. The old age of Jacob is thus contrasted with the young age of his last son by Rachel. The Jacob and Joseph story finally ends with Joseph passing at the age of 110.
Israel had lived in Egypt for 17 years when he died at the ripe old age of 147. We should be so fortunate. What an amazing life! He had gone full circle and beyond. He had feared being killed by his brother both before leaving home and upon returning home. Now the final chapter of his life would be written in the land of Egypt where his son was second only to Pharoah.
As we age, we slowly think less and less about our own accomplishments and more about the achievements of our children. So Jacob had become one proud father. Not only had his family survived intact throughout the long arduous journey from Paddan-aram, they were still all together at the end of Jacob’s life. Although Jacob had lost Joseph’s company when the lad was just 17, they got to share the best that Egypt had to offer before Jacob’s passing.
One characteristic about Jacob that always seemed obvious to me was his sense of insecurity. He neither was born, nor raised with entitlement. Esau was the entitled one. Everything that Jacob got in life had to be earned the hard way. And there was always someone there to claim that he had received it wrongfully or unfairly, whether it was Esau, his brother, or Laban, his father-in-law.
Although she died young while giving birth to Joseph’s little brother, the one emotional constant in Jacob’s life was always Rachel. It is easy to recognize from the text that whenever Jacob looked at Joseph, it was Rachel’s face that he saw. Judah, the “brother by another mother,” had to humbly acknowledge that after Joseph’s departure, Jacob’s soul had been bound up with Rachel’s second son, Benjamin. Again, as long as Benjamin was there with Jacob, Rachel felt very near.
Genesis 46:1 points out that before Israel descended into Egypt, he stopped at Be’er Sheva one last time and offered sacrifices to the God of his father. How tough it must have been for Jacob to leave the burial place of all those who had gone before him. And equally important, Rachel had been buried not too far away on the road to Bethlehem after giving birth to Benjamin. Jacob would never be able to visit their grave sites again.
Jacob was especially reminded of his roots when HaShem spoke to him in the visions of the night and reassured him that he would become in Egypt a great nation. Even after changing his name to Israel, HaShem calls out to him, “Jacob, Jacob.” Although surely manifest in His divine greatness, there must have been something reassuring in HaShem’s voice that reminded Jacob of his father’s voice when he needed reassurance as a child. Perhaps that is the reason that HaShem chose to call him Jacob as he was leaving Eretz Israel for the last time. After all, Jacob had never heard his father call him Israel.
The last thing that HaShem said to Jacob reassured him that Joseph, the firstborn of Rachel, would be with him until the end and put his hand upon his eyes. As Jacob had often been reassured by Isaac as a child, he would be accompanied until the end by the son who reminded him so much of Rachel.
Joseph's dreams came to pass above and beyond anything that even he could have imagined. Not only did his brothers end up giving him the respect that he so craved as a 17-year-old dreamer, he also was able to save his whole family, Egypt, and much of the ancient world. HaShem indeed sent him to preserve life.
The haftarah portion, Ezekiel 37:15–18, also deals with life extension in an ambitious promise that once the whole house of Israel, mentioned in Ezekiel 37:11, is restored to Eretz Israel, David will reign over us forever. Only HaShem could take life extension to infinity.
In keeping with the Jewish tradition of preserving life, Israeli scientists have been influential in the field of biogerontology, the science of aging, beginning with Amiela Globerson and Avid Danon of the Weizmann Institute of Science and David Gershon of the Technion.
The role of Israeli scientists in the field of life-extension research is so large that a European Congress of Biogerontology was held at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beer-Sheva. Conference speakers included Nir Barzilai, Gil Atzmon, Pinchas Cohen, Zipora Yablonka-Reuveni, Adi Sagiv, Jonathan Leor, and Doron Melamed. 
Israeli scientist Nir Barzilai at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University in New York, one of the foremost researchers in longevity science, was recently featured on the Breakthrough television series that was developed by the National Geographic Channel and General Electric and was broadcast to 440 million homes in 171 countries and in 45 languages.
Nir Barzilai and colleagues were instrumental in finally convincing the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to recognize the scientific value of studying ways to slow human aging for the purpose of treating age-related diseases like cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer's, and stroke. So modern scientific life-extension research is no longer fringe pseudoscience or science fiction. 

We may not live forever like David in Ezekiel 37, but it would be nice to live relatively healthy to Joseph’s age of 110 or maybe even someday to Jacob's ripe old age of 147. If Barzilai and colleagues get their way, that is exactly what will happen.

May it come speedily and in our time.
Yoeli’s Mandate: Leave your mark, make a difference for the good, and do your part to make sure that they never again devour Jacob or make his habitation waste.
You may write to Yoeli Kaufman at [email protected]