We learn much about the history of Ya’akov Avinu’s life only indirectly, e.g. knowing Yishmael’s age at death, we can calculate that Ya’akov spent 14 years learning in Yeshivas Shem v’Eiver before going to Lavan’s house. Yet, the Torah is unusually verbose at the opening to our parsha in relating chronological detail. The Torah tells us not only how long Ya’akov lived in total, but also how long he lived specifically in Mitzrayim, something we could easily figure out ourselves. Meforshim and Midrash suggest that the Torah here is telling us more than chronology. “VeYechi Ya’akov” – these 17 years (gematriya tov) were years of chiyus, years in which Ya’akov flourished spiritually more than he had done so in the past, years which uplifted all prior years and infused them with new meaning. These final seventeen years were the crowing achievement of Ya’akov’s whole life.
If you are not troubled by this idea, you should be. These seventeen years are the years of Ya’akov’s greatest spiritual ascent? OK, so the years spent apart from Yosef were difficult. The years spent working for Lavan were difficult. But what about those years spent in yeshivas Shem v’Eiver? What about the years spent in Yitzchak Avinu’s home, living in Eretz Yisrael, living under his father’s roof? While Ya’akov was still young he might have even had a chance to learn with his zeide, Avraham Avinu! Years spent in the galus of Mitzrayim were greater than those years?
R’ Tzadok haKohen (Pri Tzadik 1) teaches that this is why Parhas VaYechi is a parsha stuma, a parsha that is written with no space separating it from the previous parsha. The spaces between parshiyos were opportunities for Moshe to think, to reflect on what he had been taught, “revach l’hisbonein bein parsha l’parsha” (Rashi, VaYikra 1:1). Reflection here serves no purpose, for all the reflection in the world will not help us unravel the mystery of Ya’akov’s spiritual success davka in Mitzrayim, in galus.
This same mystery repeats itself throughout Jewish history. Galus Bavel, with the Mikdash destroyed, gave rise to Talmud Bavli. Look at the vast Torah literature produced throughout the long galus we are currently in. R’ Tzadok cites R’ Bunim m’Peshischa that although niskatnu ha’doros over time, the lev becomes more pure.
What is true of the klal is true of the prat as well. Situations which seem most bleak, least opportune for spiritual development, can be the very situations in which an individual can thrive and grow to the greatest heights.