Parshat Vayechi marks the first time we see the word חולה, “sick,” in the Torah. Yaakov’s illness is the incipient occurrence that brought about Yaakov’s blessing Yosef’s, and his own, children. What made Yaakov different that he was the first person to become ill before his death?
The Midrash Rabbah records how our forefathers each asked for something to be done to them before their deaths: Avraham was concerned about his appearance. He told Hashem that if fathers and sons looked alike (as they did then), nobody could tell which of the two to honor more. He therefore recommended that Hashem give the elder generations signs of aging so a difference would be apparent. Hashem responded that this was a good idea, and it would be done.
Yitzchak, too, was unhappy, this time regarding his health. He reasoned that if there was no pain in the world, there would be little suffering that could punish man in this world, and thus there would be an incredible burden placed upon a sinner at the time of his death. Pain in this world, however, could partially alleviate the pain in the World To Come and thus ease one’s entrance to Gan Eden. This, too, Hashem agreed, and He made Yitzchak blind in his old age.
In this Parsha, we see that Yaakov made a similar request. He told Hashem that if, in his dying hour, a person were to become ill, it would serve as a warning for him to use his remaining time to prepare his descendants with whatever information he needs to hand down to them. Hashem approved, and Yaakov was the first person to have a terminal illness. He then knew it was time to bless his children and give them their final instructions for living in Egypt.
There is a great lesson to be learned from the actions of our forefathers. Most of us would choose youth, good health, and eternal happiness over the unappealing aspects of life, but we can now see that this is not always for the best. We must think of our true future in the World To Come and of what will help bring us there, which does not always include the joys of life. We must be willing to accept the unfortunate turns in our lives and take them not as setbacks, but as opportunities for improvement to our souls.