The story of Joseph is familiar to many who have never opened the Parashat Vayigash, is rarely included in these adaptations.It has been written and rewritten; set to music and presented on screens. However, a very moving scene found in this week’s Torah portion,
When Joseph finally is reunited with his father Jacob in Egypt, he introduces Jacob to Pharaoh. This lesser-known, brief, and intense encounter reads as follows:
“Joseph then brought his father Jacob and presented him to Pharaoh; and Jacob greeted Pharaoh. Pharaoh asked Jacob, “How many are the years of your life?” And Jacob answered Pharaoh, “The years of my sojourn [on earth] are one hundred and thirty. Few and hard have been the years of my life, nor do they come up to the life-spans of my fathers during their sojourns.” Then Jacob bade Pharaoh farewell, and left Pharaoh’s presence” (Genesis 47: 7-10).
Our commentators, hoping we will come to a full understanding of this moment, ask some key questions: What does it mean that Jacob greeted and bade farewell to Pharaoh? Why did Pharaoh ask Jacob his age? What was Jacob telling us about the quantity and quality of the days of his life?
While the translation says that Jacob greeted Pharaoh and then said farewell, the Hebrew is identical in both verses. Vay’varech Ya’akov et Par’oh: Jacob blessed Pharaoh. What kind of blessing could he have offered? Rashi leads one school of commentators who see it as a pro forma greeting and farewell, and the Jewish Publication Society translation follows that interpretation. While these words are taken as a form of polite conversation, Ramban suggests that Jacob offered Pharaoh a real blessing.
That might seem surprising if we see Pharaoh as powerful royalty and Jacob as a visiting, aged pauper. However, earlier in this week’s portion (Genesis 45:4), Joseph tells his brothers that he has been placed in the role of father to Pharaoh. As pointed out by the Tz’ror HaMor (Rabbi Avraham Sabba, who was exiled from Spain in 1492), this would make Jacob like a grandfather to Pharaoh. Regardless of titles and possessions, we all need to be blessed. When we are leaders and carry greater responsibility, that need only increases. Whose blessing would enrich your life? What blessing can you offer to others to lift their soul or brighten their days?
In regard to Pharaoh asking Jacob his age, many commentators suggest that Jacob must have seemed to be of very advanced age. While 130 may seem impossibly old in our world, this number is smaller in the context of the book of Genesis; Abraham lived to the age of 175 and Isaac to 180. However, the hardships he experienced were profound, including loss and exile, strife, and sexual violence against his daughter Dinah. He buried his beloved wife Rachel and thought his favourite son Joseph had been gone for decades. While these painful experiences belong primarily to those directly affected, they must have weighed heavily on Jacob, as well.
Stress, after all, is not only an internal experience. It writes itself on our faces and in the set of our shoulders and our entire physical self. The current pandemic, for instance, affects each of us differently. We should be on the lookout, making the effort to see all of those around us as clearly as we can. If we see others being worn down by this reality, we must be present in their lives and bless them through our solidarity and acts of compassion.
Despite being 130 years old, Jacob says that his years have been few and difficult. Powerfully, he also asserts that his life has not measured up to those of his ancestors. Importantly, he makes these statements in the past tense, as if his life is already over. While some commentators suggest that he knew that he did not have many years remaining, he lived 17 more years, reflecting the first 17 years of Joseph’s life, during which he and his father lived together, and which Jacob enjoyed.
However, the blessing of his beginning and ending may not have been enough to enable him to overcome the strife and trouble of the intervening years, and that seems fair. It is not ours to judge the experience or suffering of another. Still, most of us do not know the difficulties that our ancestor Jacob and his family faced. Too often, instead of reflecting on our blessings, we allow our perceived challenges to overwhelm us.
Let us not judge our own lives too harshly. Jacob left behind a legacy arguably greater than that of the other patriarchs. May we spend this dark time of year reflecting on the seeds of light we have sewn and shared with others, and may we be inspired to continue this in seasons to come.