Parashat Va-y'hi

Genesis 47:28–50:26
January 10, 2009 / 14 Tevet 5769

This week's commentary was written by Rabbi David Hoffman, scholar-in-residence, Department of Development, and lecturer in the Department of Talmud and Rabbinics, JTS

Indifference to the sublime wonder of living is the root of sin.
-Abraham Joshua Heschel

I want to tell you about a person close to me, whom I think some of you may recognize, not in name but in disposition. Let's call him Uncle Lenny.

A number of years ago, I was at the wedding of one of Uncle Lenny's grandchildren, and I remember someone asking him, "How's it going?" An innocent question, but to this day I remember Uncle Lenny's response: "Not so bad." I remember feeling deeply upset by Uncle Lenny's words. Here we were at this wonderful, joyous moment where he was able to see his first grandchild get married to a fabulous woman. Uncle Lenny was with his family; he enjoyed good health; and all he was able to muster was, "Not so bad." His response struck me almost as outrageous.

Now, I have not been completely forthright. A number of years earlier, Uncle Lenny's wife of fifty years had a debilitating stroke that left her a fraction of the woman she once was. So, Uncle Lenny had come on hard times. But even so, his response bothered me because I had heard these same words for years, even when Uncle Lenny and his wife shared the blessings of good health.

Every year when I read the parashiyot Va-yiggash and Va-y'hi, I think of Uncle Lenny.

Jacob has learned that his beloved son Joseph is still alive. Not only alive, but second in command of a superpower. And not only that, but Joseph was about to save all of Jacob's family from famine and give them food and wealth.

It is at this moment, when Jacob has come down to Egypt, that Joseph introduces his elderly father to his boss, Pharaoh. Upon meeting Jacob, Pharaoh asks him, "How many are the years of your life?" Jacob's response always hurts me: "The years of my sojourn are one hundred and thirty. Few and bad have been the years of my life, nor do they come up to the life spans of my fathers" (Gen. 47:9). One can only imagine the expression on Pharaoh's face.

At this moment, when we would like to imagine Jacob feeling great pride in his son Joseph, when we imagine he must have been overcome by feelings of blessings and fortune, he replies, in essence, "My life is terrible! Sit down, Pharaoh and let me tell you of my hardships."

And yes, it is true. Jacob has had a hard life. He had to run away from his home because his brother wanted to kill him. He was tricked and had to work extra years to marry the love of his life; she then died before him. His daughter was raped. He knew there was much dissension among his sons. His favorite son, firstborn of his favorite wife, disappeared. Yet still, I find Jacob's response almost blasphemous.

And I am not alone. There is a midrash that says, "How dare Jacob represent his life as such. I (God) saved Jacob from Esau and Lavan, I returned Dinah and Joseph to him and Jacob dares represent his life as 'Few and bad years?!' For each of the words Jacob uttered to Pharaoh I will take a year of his life away. He really will not reach the years of his father and grandfather!"

I think this midrash is amazing. It indicts Jacob for his inability to experience hakarat hatov, the recognition of the good and blessings in one's life. Even acknowledging that Jacob has undergone so much pain and difficulty, the midrash condemns his incapacity to recognize the blessings he has received. This inability is a tragic flaw of Jacob's character.

But we should not give up on Jacob. In this week's Parashat Va-y'hi, Jacob presents us with a completely different attitude toward life.

As he is about to die, he gathers his family around him and leaves them a precious ethical will. Jacob says to Joseph, "I never expected to see you again, and here God has let me see your children as well" (Gen. 48:11). Jacob finally expresses awareness of his life's blessings.

Then Jacob offers his grandchildren the most profound blessing: "The God who has been my shepherd from my birth to this day, the Angel who has redeemed me from all harm—bless these lads" (Gen. 48:15). Jacob acknowledges the blessings that God has bestowed upon him and recalls them even as he is dying.

Jacob leaves his children and us with the greatest of legacies—hakarat hatov for the blessings that he has received. I like to think that within Jacob's words to his family is his hope that they too will be able to feel deep down, even at hard moments, that life is more than "not so bad."

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.