In this article, I would like to focus on our forefather Jacob’s arrival in Egypt.
By Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel
This week’s Torah portion is “Vayigash” (Genesis 44:18–47:27), and in it we read how Judah pleads with Joseph (whom he does not recognize) on behalf of his brother Benjamin, who was being held captive. Joseph then reveals himself to his brothers, peace is restored, and their father Jacob eventually comes down to Egypt – which, by extension, means that the entire Jewish People moved to Egypt and settled there.
When Jacob arrives in Egypt, he is invited for a private audience with Pharaoh. This first thing Pharaoh asks him is, “How old are you?” Jacob’s response? “I’ve lived 130 years. Few and bad have been the days of the years of my life, and they have not reached the life spans of my forefathers.”
The commentators discuss why Pharaoh asked Jacob his age. One would think that it is not the most appropriate or tactful question to ask someone immediately upon meeting him for the first time. Not very diplomatic. One answer offered is that Jacob looked exceedingly old and worn, hence, it justifiably piqued Pharaoh’s curiosity.
The Midrash expands on this dialogue and says that Jacob became God angry with his response to Pharaoh. When Jacob told Pharoah that his life was bitter and lousy, God said to him, “I saved you from Esau and Laban, I returned Dina and Joseph to you, and now you are complaining about your life, saying that it has been bitter?”
We are told that God deducted a year from Jacob’s life for every word of complaint he said to Pharaoh, which totaled 33 words, and hence 33 years. As such, Jacob lived to 147 while his father lived until 180.
To be fair to Jacob, God’s response may have been harsh. Sure, “God returned Dina,” and yes, “God allowed Jacob to finally be reunited with Joseph” – but why did God let this all happen in the first place? God is demanding appreciation from Jacob for the end result, but Jacob would surely have been much happier if these troubles had never come about in the first place!.God wants appreciation now? Jacob is angry for what God put him through. Yes, Dina was returned…only after being raped. He is reunited with Joseph…only after mourning for him in vain for 22 years, and so on.
Who’s right? God or Jacob? Does God deserve a thank you? Is Jacob justified in complaining? How can we understand this exchange?
It has been suggested that for the simple folk like us, a bitter grudge is understandable. However, for a spiritual giant like Jacob, he should have had more sensitivity to the way God chooses to run the world. We could add that, now in hindsight, Jacob knew that “everything God does is for the best.” To give but one example: Yes, the story of Joseph and the 22 years of mourning in vain was a tremendous tragedy. However, look where it led to: Joseph is second in command of Egypt and provides the country food during the years of the famine. God knows what He is doing, and Jacob should have realized it. So ,in Jacob’s case, God was justified in not receiving a thank you for the “end results” in each of Jacob’s apparent troubles.
Perhaps we can learn something from this exchange. Life isn’t always easy. And most of us are not going to say “thank you” to God after a bad or near-tragic day. But maybe we should develop a greater sensitivity for the “small blessings” in life. We should make more effort to see the “silver lining” in our “bad days” and any negative experiences. It’s all in the attitude!
For more insights by Rabbi Enkin on this week’s Torah portion, click on the links below.
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