Thursday, December 13, 2018

The Years of Our Life, The Life in Our Years

In Parshat Vayigash, Yaakov and Yosef are reunited and Yosef brings his father to meet Pharaoh. Their meeting begins with Yaakov blessing Pharaoh, and then Pharaoh asks a question in response:

And Pharaoh said to Jacob, "How many are the days of the years of your life?"

חוַיֹּאמֶר פַּרְעֹה אֶל יַעֲקֹב כַּמָּה יְמֵי שְׁנֵי חַיֶּיךָ
I view this question as an equivalent to a “How are you?” The socially correct answer in this situation would be a short factual response- which is what Yaakov initially provides:

וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב אֶל פַּרְעֹה יְמֵי שְׁנֵי מְגוּרַי שְׁלשִׁים וּמְאַת שָׁנָה

“The days of the years of my sojourning are one hundred thirty years.”

But then Yaakov goes off the rails and things quickly get uncomfortable, as Yaakov continues:

מְעַט וְרָעִים הָיוּ יְמֵי שְׁנֵי חַיַּי

“The days of the years of my life have been few and miserable”

This is a classic case of TMI- too much information. Pharaoh was merely trying to make chit chat with his viceroy’s father, and Yaakov has to go ahead and ruin it by making things all awkward.

So one lesson we can learn from this exchange in our Parsha is: let’s make sure our words are meaningful. Let’s consider a greeting other than “How are you?” and save that question for people and situations when we are really interested in the answer.

Let’s return to Yaakov’s response: It’s pretty shocking. Yaakov kvetches that his days have been “few” and miserable. Both claims can be challenged. The Ramban notes that by this time, a long life span was down to 70-80 years. So 130 years is nothing to complain about!

Second, things may not have always worked out in an easy or straightforward way for Yaakov. But for the most part, in the end, things work out for him. Yaakov must flee from Eisav - but ultimately reconciles with him. Yaakov is persecuted by his father in law - but ultimately he is able to leave as a rich man.  Sure, Yaakov had tzuris. But we would not expect our Patriarch to describe this life as “miserable.”

The Malbim (19th century Russian commentator) encourages us to look at the text carefully:
When he first answers the question, Yaakov states that his “Yemei Shnei Megurai” is 130 years. However Yaakov uses a slightly different language “Yemei Shnai Chayei” – when referring to his life as short and miserable.

Explains the Malbim: The term “Shnay Megurei” refers to the years that Yaakov had lived on this planet: which solicits a factual answer: 130 years. What was few and miserable for Yaakov was his “Shnay Chayei”- the time Yaakov felt he was able to really live. To engage in meaningful activities. To help others, to learn Torah, to connect with family and with Hashem.

Yaakov’s response to Pharaoh challenges us to consider what ways we are really living during the years that God gives us in this life. And how we can increase our Shnot Chayim during our sojourn on this planet.

As Abraham Lincoln put it: “In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.”

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