Few and Hard

How do you want the years of your life to be viewed? Someone wise told me that each and every day we write part of our eulogy. What part are you working on today?

At the end of his life, Jacob met with Pharaoh in Egypt. Pharaoh asked him “How many are the days of the years of your life?” Jacob’s reply might take us aback at first. He stated, “The days of the years of my sojourn on earth have been 130. Few and hard have been the days of the years of my life, and the do not reach the life spans of my fathers during their sojourns.”

Is this Jacob being Hutzpahdik again? I’m sure many of us would love to live 130 years-or have our loved ones have lived 130 years. Why is Jacob comparing his own life to that of his father’s and grandfather’s? Why isn’t he looking back on his life and saying “I have had a life well-lived?”

Rashi, an 11th century French commentator, wondered about why Jacob brought his forefathers into his reply to Pharaoh. He asserted that Jacob did not mean that his life did not attain Isaac’s and Abraham’s in terms of goodness. After all, Jacob lived most of his adult life thinking his youngest, beloved son, Joseph, was dead. He also lived through years of famine, as a refugee fleeing his brother Esau, and of being deceived by family members. At this stage, Jacob recognizes that he had a much harder life than those before him. We know that stress can age people (just look at how President Obama looks now compared to seven years ago), and through his trials and tribulations Jacob has greatly aged.

Nachmanides (Ramban), from 13th century Spain and Israel, was interested in why Pharaoh asked Jacob the question about his age in the first place. He comments that Pharaoh had seen very few people who had reached Jacob’s age and wanted to know what his secret was. Perhaps Jacob had an elixir or a “fountain of youth,” just like some are now looking the reason why people in Okinawa, Japan tend to live such long lives. Jacob threw a difficult answer back at Pharaoh, retorting that not only is there no secret but he actually has lived a shorter amount of time than those who preceded him-that it is just from his hard life that he looks older than he is.

Ovadiah Seforno, a 16th century Italian commentator, went a step further in discussing Jacob’s hardships. He asserted that the years in which one goes through hardships are not considered “the years of one’s life.” Of course they are considered years in which Jacob has sojourned on earth, so they count towards his 130 years. However, for Seforno, living through toil and tribulation is not life in its fullest and richest sense, making Jacob’s years of calm and comfort “few and hard.” While Jacob was blessed to live many years, unfortunately he was not blessed with an easy life in which he could live to the fullest.

What lessons do we take from Jacob’s reply to Pharaoh? Perhaps it is that Jacob finally understands that life is about more than how many years one lives; it’s about what one does with the years that s/he is given. Jacob was privileged to live 17 years after his encounter with Pharaoh, to a ripe-old age of 147, yet I doubt many of us would have traded our lives for his and for what he went through. The birthright and the blessing he had achieved did not appear to be so valuable anymore after being manipulated by his children into thinking his son was dead and almost going through the same heartbreak when he entrusted Benjamin to the brothers’ care so that they would not starve during the famine. What we learn from Jacob is the well-known statement, “a person of wisdom makes every day count,” that while we may not have the blessing of living 147 years, we can enjoy and make the most out of each day of each month of each year that we do have. In so doing, while our days might not add up to those of our forefathers, instead of viewing them as “few and hard” we can see them as “full and wonderful.” We are fortunate to live in nice suburban homes with food and clothing so readily accessible to us at a time when we have economic opportunities greater than those of our ancestors. Let us do what we can to appreciate the blessings of our life each and every day to always view things with the best outlook. Shabbat Shalom.

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