Parshat Vayishlach: The Measure of our Lives

December 1, 2023

It seems like any other day. You wake up, pour a cup of coffee, and head out. But today, when you open your front door, waiting for you is a small wooden box, inscribed with the words, “The measure of your life lies within.” This box holds your fate: the exact number of years you will live. 

This is the premise of the novel, The Measure, by Nikki Erlick. It might sound pseudo-dystopian – and at times, the book definitely treads into that territory; in the wake of the boxes and strings, said to be “the measure” of the recipients life, society becomes newly divided between those who look and those who don’t, between “long-stringers” and “short-stringers”… Of course, long life is always the preference, but no matter how long one’s “string,” knowing the exact date of your eventual death is a terrifying thought… But in spite of it’s direct confrontation of mortality, the book is surprisingly hopeful, focusing on the power of love and interpersonal relationships on our quality of life, and the notion that, in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “It is not the length of life, but the depth of life” that matters most.

Jewish tradition holds that our lives are the most precious gift, and pikuach nefesh, the preservation of life, is of the utmost importance, and holds that the value of life does not depreciate because one’s years are cut short. Take, for example, our matriarch Rachel: she appears for the first time in last week’s parsha and dies in this week’s parsha and, despite being the shortest-lived ancestor, Rachel nonetheless looms large in the biblical narrative. She is described as beautiful, capable and resourceful, as unequivocally the most beloved and cherished of Jacob’s wives. While she only bore two children, she is the mother of Jacob’s favorite child Joseph, and the progenitor of 3 tribes of Israel – Joseph’s sons, Ephraim and Menashe, were each allotted their own tribe. And her spirit lives on long after her earthly departure: the mystics associate Rachel with the divine attribute of malkhut, majesty, and with the Shechkina, the feminine aspect of the Divine presence. Rachel appears in midrashim, not only as a caring, compassionate and expertly communicative figure, but as nurturing presence embodied, ready to accompany the Jewish people when and wherever we need it most.

While no one can foresee the length of our days, this Shabbat and always, may we seek to measure our lives, not by years lived, or even accomplishments racked up, but like our foremother Rachel, by the love, care, benefit of the doubt and compassion we give, and by the positive impact of our presence on our loved ones, our community and the world around us. 

Rabbi Jenn Queen