Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s ‘Unlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Bereishit,’ co-published by OU Press and Gefen
After orchestrating his family’s descent to Egypt, Yosef brings his father before the Egyptian king. The patriarch blesses Pharaoh and the king asks, “How many are the days of the years of your life?”
Yaakov responds, “The days of the years of my sojourning are one hundred thirty years. Few and difficult were the days of the years of my life and they did not reach the days of the years of the lives of my fathers, in the days of their sojourning.”
Yaakov blesses Pharaoh again, and the encounter ends.
The conversation between Yaakov and Pharaoh can only be described as deeply disappointing. The setting, after all, is momentous. This is not only an encounter between two great world leaders, but a confrontation between two vastly different, powerful cultures. Meeting for the first and only recorded time are the monarch of the world’s greatest empire and the last patriarch, the progenitor of an eternal nation which will outlast countless empires beyond Egypt.
We wait with bated breath as two worlds collide, only to finally ask in frustration: Is this all these great leaders had to say to each other?
Why is Pharaoh so concerned with Yaakov’s age?
What is the real meaning of Yaakov’s elliptical response to the king?
Why the diplomatic doublespeak? Why not answer simply and directly?
Above all, if the conversation between Yaakov and Pharaoh was so banal, why does the Torah bother to record it at all?
Clearly there is much more to this brief encounter than meets the eye. Carefully read, the dialogue actually reflects a vast philosophical divide between the participants. This rift becomes clear when Yaakov, responding to Pharaoh’s inquiry, distinguishes between two concepts: chaim (life) and megurim (sojourning).
Once this distinction is noted, the conversation unfolds with evident subtext. Pharaoh, king of an empire preoccupied with life, death and life beyond death, turns to the patriarch and, seeing a man apparently older than any he has met before, exclaims:
“How many are the days of the years of your life?” My God, how old are you? How have you managed to attain the longevity we all seek? What is your secret?
“The days of the years of my sojourning are one hundred thirty years.” Do not be impressed with my chronological age. Living long is, in and of itself, no accomplishment at all. There is a vast difference between life and sojourning, between living and existing. I have existed, but not lived, for one hundred thirty years.
“Few and difficult were the days of the years of my life and they did not reach the days of the years of the lives of my fathers in the days of their sojourning.” Do not envy me. My days of true life, of peace, comfort and ease, have been few and far between. Do not aspire to simple sojourning, to longevity alone. Be impressed, instead, by life – years of meaning. Chronological age is of little value when your days and years have been as difficult as mine.
In subtle yet emphatic fashion, Yaakov reprimands Pharaoh for his preoccupation with prolonged existence. The patriarch has learned a difficult lesson through his years of struggle with external foes and internal family strife. What counts, says Yaakov, are years of chaim – life – meaningful years of peace, comfort and ease.
One final, powerful twist to the substance of this conversation, however, emerges from a lesson possibly learned by the patriarch later in his life.
The last parsha in Sefer Bereishit, Parshat Vayechi, opens with the statement “Vayechi Yaakov b’eretz Mitzraim shva esrei shana (And Yaakov lived in the land of Egypt for seventeen years).”
The Torah rarely records the exact length of periods in the lives of its heroes. Computations concerning the passage of time are usually made by the rabbis, based upon hints within the text. Why, then, does the Torah go out of its way to specify the length of time that Yaakov lived in Egypt?
Because, some commentaries explain, these were the only years that Yaakov truly lived (aside, perhaps, from the years between Yosef ’s birth and his sale into servitude). Finally, after a lifetime of struggle, reunited with his beloved Yosef, surrounded by a harmonious family, Yaakov earns the peace of mind and spirit which has eluded him for so long. He ultimately experiences years of chaim – seventeen years of life.
The truth, however, is more complicated than it seems.
While Yaakov’s last years may very well have been his only years of peace and quiet, they were also the only years of Yaakov’s life that we know nothing about. In stark contrast to the rest of his existence, Yaakov’s years in Egypt produced no great contribution.
As Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch notes, “The troubled years of his life, in which the test had to be gone through…were those in which Yaakov won his everlasting national importance.”
Perhaps Yaakov learns, in his final days, that Pharaoh was not the only one mistaken in his apprehension of life’s goals. For while the quality of life cannot be measured by longevity alone, neither can it be measured by the attainment of comfort or ease. The very struggle of living, with all its pain and challenge, creates the cauldron from which growth and contribution can emerge.
Points to Ponder
How is the quality of our lives ultimately to be judged? Is our purpose the pursuit of happiness, comfort, peace, tranquility? Is success to be measured by the attainment of those goals?
One of the most creative scholars of our day, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, bemoans the fact that “peace of mind” has become in our time “a spiritual ideal and significant life goal, the final achievement to which various schools of thought and meditation aspire.”
“Peace with no content,” continues Steinsaltz, “meaningless tranquility, rest without sanctity – all are empty vessels…. There are goals that cannot be attained except through struggle waged within the soul.”
For his part, Rabbi Yosef Soloveitchik, considered by many the foremost teacher of our era, proclaims that religion does not provide a solution to life’s problems but, instead, “deepens the problem.”
“The beauty of religion with its grandiose vistas,” maintains Rabbi Soloveitchik, “reveals itself to man not in solutions, but in problems, not in harmony, but in the constant conflict of diversified forces and trends.”
In a society where so many have achieved a level of physical comfort and ease undreamt of in previous years, we ironically witness an extraordinary measure of existential sadness and spiritual disquiet. The more “happiness” is pursued as a goal, the more elusive it becomes. Man is built to struggle with himself, his surroundings, his fate, even with his Creator – to never be satisfied with the world as it is, but to strive to make it better. The more we try to retreat from this struggle of life, the emptier our lives
Significance will be found not in the futile search for “peace of mind” but in the embrace of what Steinsaltz calls the “strife of the spirit.” From the battlefield of that effort, value, purpose, accomplishment and true happiness emerge.