Vayachi: What’s in 17 Years?

Rabbeinu Bechaye presents a preface to each Torah reading.  These introductions are based around a verse from Mishlei, applying a central theme for each Parsha, feeling that Chazal divided up the parshiot in such a way so as to emphasize a particular educational concept.  In his introduction to this week's Parshah, he relates on importance of tzedakah.
Tzedakah Saves Life
Rabbeinu Bechaye begins with the following verse from Mishlei:
In the way of righteousness (charity) is life, and in its path there is no death.
בְּאֹרַח צְדָקָה חַיִּים וְדֶרֶךְ נְתִיבָה אַל מָוֶת
Mishlei 12:28
He explains that the attribute of Tzedakah, as it says in Tehilim"for in observing them there is great reward", explaining that a person's days on this earth are determined from the outset however through intervention by higher powers (koach elyon) that time can be altered for good or even for bad.
Shlomo Hamelech, the author of Mishlei, says that Tzedakah is an exalted and powerful attribute, it's power is great and can impact our lives.  So the verse "In the way of righteousness (charity) is life" is interpreted as being: Tzedakah holds the power to add onto the already determined years of life.
And so the phrase "and in its path there is no death" since applying the Tzedakah approach is certain, one will not find death on this path.  No death at all? As it says in Mishle "but charity will save from death," (וּצְדָקָה תַּצִּיל מִמָּוֶת) That is to say all who are particular in tzedakah will not know death before their designated time.
Levels of Tzedakah
Tzedakah can be fulfilled at various levels.
·         Simplest level: To give to a stranger, even a non-Jew (according Ran, but according to the Rambam if the non-Jew comes with a Jew)
·         Higher: To give to another poor Jew in a different town
·         To give to a poor Jew in your own town
·         To give to a poor Jew that is close to you, that you have a relationship with.
·         To support the poor Jew's children
·         To support one's parents, for that is fulfilling 'honor thy father and mother'
This is a great act of Tzedakah that has no greater, for that we are promised long life as it says "Honor your father and your mother, in order that your days be lengthened" (Shmot 20:12)

Yaacov's Years in Egypt
So how does this come out in our Parshah?
We see in the earlier encounter that when Yaacov arrives in Egypt he shares his age:
And Jacob said to Pharaoh, "The days of the years of my sojournings are one hundred thirty years. The days of the years of my life have been few and miserable, and they have not reached the days of the years of the lives of my forefathers in the days of their sojournings."
וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב אֶל פַּרְעֹה יְמֵי שְׁנֵי מְגוּרַי שְׁלשִׁים וּמְאַת שָׁנָה מְעַט וְרָעִים הָיוּ יְמֵי שְׁנֵי חַיַּי וְלֹא הִשִּׂיגוּ אֶת יְמֵי שְׁנֵי חַיֵּי אֲבֹתַי בִּימֵי מְגוּרֵיהֶם
Then in this week's parshah we see:
And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt for seventeen years, and Jacob's days, the years of his life, were a hundred and forty seven years.
וַיְחִי יַעֲקֹב בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם שְׁבַע עֶשְׂרֵה שָׁנָה וַיְהִי יְמֵי יַעֲקֹב שְׁנֵי חַיָּיו שֶׁבַע שָׁנִים וְאַרְבָּעִים וּמְאַת שָׁנָה
We could have figured out for ourselves that Yaacov was in Egypt for 17 years.  So why does the Torah have to specify "And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt for seventeen years"?
Measure for Measure
The Rabbeinu Bechaya says there isn't a phrase or letter that is not used to serve a purpose in the Torah. So this verse must come show significant.  Rabbeinu Bechaya  explains the verse from Mishlei "In the way of righteousness (charity) is life" can be measure for measure. Just as we saw Yosef support his father for 17 years , seemingly in parallel for Yaacov had supported Yosef for 17 years, as we saw in Vayeshev "These are the generations of Jacob: when Joseph was seventeen years old" (Breisheit 37:2)
And this is what the verse "And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt for seventeen years" brings to our attention, showing measure for measure, as explained in the opening, and in return the 17 years Yosef supported his elderly father.
Why Egypt?
The Netivot Shalom takes another perspective asking why does the verse have to specify that Jacob lived in the land of Egypt for 17 years?
Yet in considering this question, the Netivot Shalom raises another issue. Why did Yaacov have to go down at all?
It wasn't foretold in the covenant that proclaimed Am Yisrael would be in Egypt for 400 years. Netivot Shalom explains that in the brit bain habitarim, Hashem explains to Avraham that for his offspring to be worthy of standing at Har Sinai they will have to undergo a 'polishing' through slavery and suffering, in order to subdue the materialistic and physical sides of their nature.  And specifically Hashem chose Egypt, the worst possible place, known as an impure place steeped in lewd behavior, to subdue the physical and to polish our 'midot' in preparation of receiving the Torah. The approach was that living in an impure place would mean that they would have to work extra hard to remain at their initial level of holiness, and thus they would leave Egypt fortified in holiness and purity.
Descending into Egypt
Yet for Am Yisrael to be in this environment, would mean that they would not have far to fall to be in an unrecoverable state.  
We see that different patriarchs and matriarchs went down to Egypt. The patriarchs and matriarchs needed to lessen the intensity of this impure environment, and infuse it with an initial level of holiness. Avraham and Sarah go to Egypt, and their presence there lays the path, bringing some holiness to Egypt. Yoseph spent most of his life in Egypt, at great personal sacrifice and facing enormous personal tremendous challenges. This adds more of a holy presence to Egypt. Then Yaacov came down to Egypt.
Netivot Shalom suggests that Yaacov's mission in coming down Egypt was to further enhance the holiness and subdue Egypt's inherent  impurity.
This plays a key role in paving the way for the People of Israel to eventually to settle in Egypt. The Avot's holy presence in Egypt is meant to transmit holy sparks and infuse the atmosphere of Egypt with a holiness that was not there. This is meant to create the foundations for an environment that would  enable the People of Israel to survive their sojourn and suffering in Egypt.
Why 17
Yet this doesn't address the main question. Why does the Torah have to stipulate that Yaacov was in Egypt for 17 years?  The Netivot Shalom emphasizes that this figure is critical. The gematria of 17 is:
ט ו ב
2 + 6 + 9 = 17
What is this? This is goodness (טוב). Goodness is critical in conquering (or correcting) specific character traits. Good opposes Bad (רע), making up the evil force confronting us in the Yetzer HaRah (יצר הרע).
Personal Descent to Egypt
Yaacov's descent to Egypt can be seen as a metaphor for the life experience. Yaacov sitting in the promised land, is that place on high where souls are hewn. So like the patriarchs and matriarchs bringing holy sparks to Egypt, we need to work on our souls in the same way in this world.
This is the path for each of us to reach our destiny, what he calls our own personal Har Sinai, and to ultimately feel connected on a personal level to The Chosen People. This means to not only to be a Jew in the sense that we are born to Jewish parents but more importantly in a spiritual sense. That is to focus on subduing our connection the physical and material and polishing our 'midot'. That all the time that we are still consumed by the material, even while engaged in Torah study and the service of Hashem, we will not bring reach our spiritual destiny.
That is ultimately what the verse is saying "And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt for seventeen years" for the Torah is not simply telling stories, but conveying deeper messages, teaching us that the Jewish soul comes from a high place down into this world, an imperfect world, filled with destructive, distracting elements to the lowly physical world, full of desires and base inclinations.
This descent is like Yaacov's descent to Egypt, teaching how we also need to focus on fixing our souls, polishing them from the influence of material and physical desires of this world.  

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