This week’s Parsha involves two epic showdowns between critical players in the Torah’s stories up until now. The first more well-known is the encounter between Yosef and Yehuda which comes to its dramatic conclusion within the very first moments of our Parsha. In an emotionally charged and fantastic scene, Yosef reveals his identity, sending his brothers into both shock and even upheaval as the consequences of their circumstance are flipped on their head: the very source of their perceived troubles becomes the wellspring of their hopes and even redemption. Who could have imagined such a turn of events? It is not for nothing that Chaza”l reveal that our coming final redemption will mimic the encounter between Yosef and Yehuda, may it be speedily in our day.
There is however a second encounter which often receives somewhat less attention, though it too is of demonstrably epic proportions and even profound importance, and that is the meeting between Yaakov Avinu and Pharaoh. The Torah’s description of this meeting is remarkably brief, no more than a mere three or four psukim, yet the deeper meaning of this encounter is explosive in its import and cataclysmic in its consequences. That the Torah saw fit to include some detail of this meeting is instructive that there was something critical to be gained from our understanding of it, so let us examine briefly what exactly occurred during this brief exchange between Yaakov and Pharaoh.
Before doing that, let’s take a step back and give context to the scene. It has been revealed to Pharaoh that Yosef’s family has arrived. Yosef is beckoned by the Pharaoh to bring his entire family down to Egypt to live during the famine. This sounds like a nice Shana Aleph story, where a student’s parents arrive and the Rosh Yeshiva invites the family to come for a day and stay with the yeshiva: Yaakov comes “to check in on Yosef” and oh how sweet – he brings his whole family and what a nice get-together it is. They stay at the Egyptian version of the Inbal (or more likely the Citadel) and meals are on the house while they drink in the sights and go on touring trips during their stay. This is the picture many have of this encounter, where Yaakov meeting Pharaoh was simply a nicety and nothing more than that. But when context is given, this meeting is far more important than we realize.
Yaakov was, quite literally, the leader and Prime Minister of the Monotheistic movement in the known world. He is the direct descendant of Avraham -and also Yitzchak – whose name has already at this short point in history stretched from one end of Mesopotamia to the other. Yaakov is known. His accolades and those of his sons are renowned. He is the scion of what will become the Jewish movement, a prophet and leader of the nascent nation which has seen him fight against and best kings and angels. His reputation and name are known and spoken by the leaders of the world. He is and represents, quite simply, the continuation of God’s promise and imperativeness to Avraham, a venerable force to be reckoned with. The meeting between Yaakov and Pharaoh is not just a meeting between dear-ol’-dad coming to visit his son and who gets invited to the White House, or Parliament, to meet his son’s employer. This is quite literally a meeting between two of the most important and formidable heads of state in the world at that time: The ruler of Egypt, one of the largest Metropolises at the time, and the leader of the Monotheistic Movement in the world. This is not just a meeting of individuals; this is a meeting of two cultures, two powers, two vastly different philosophical and theological movements.
We are not often privy to the conversations that take place between heads of state behind closed doors. Yet the Torah is giving us a glimpse of what was discussed. And what was discussed? Pharaoh asks Yaakov how old he his, and Yaakov makes a pithy reply. And then Yaakov blesses Pharaoh and leaves. This does not sound like much of a meeting between two great leaders, and often reinforces the first perspective, that Yaakov’s visit was nothing more than a simple visit by a dad checking in on his son, but that impression is simply not supported by the psukim, for one, because of the means of travel afforded Yaakov down to Mitzrayim, and for another, for the way in which Yaakov is treated when he is returned to Canaan to be buried. (If anyone wants to understand and appreciate the way Yaakov is mourned in next week’s Parsha, look no further than the way the Queen was laid to rest earlier this past year and the time and ceremony giving to her passing – and Yaakov’s funeral procession was most likely given 10 times the amount of honor and respect, let alone time and resources.)
So what was this exchange really about? If we examine the language, we will see that both cultures’ values were clearly on display. Pharaoh, representing Egypt, sees the longevity of human life as a remarkable value in and of itself. He sees Yaakov, weighed down by the years of his old life (he is 130 at this meeting) as demonstrating mastery over the physical and as something to be marveled at. Naturally, Pharaoh asks Yaakov how old he is – his question is a statement regarding the value he and his culture place on living a long life. Yaakov’s answer however, like the encounter between Yosef and Yehuda, flips this perspective on its head: Yaakov’s answer is the Torah’s response to what we see as meaning in length of days. “Yemei shnei megurai shloshim u’meh’at shanah” Yaakov begins his response with a direct answer to pharaoh’s query: “The days of my existence/dwelling are 130 years.” However, Yaakov then continues by differentiating between yemei megurai – days of dwelling – and yemei chayai – days of living. “me’at v’ra’im hayu yemei shnei chayai – the days of my actual living were few and not well.” Yaakov makes a clear distinction between a life that is marked by mere existence, versus a life that is marked by value.
Yaakov, it is true, led a very difficult life. His life was marked by tremendous challenges and nisyonot – trials. The gemara relates that Yaakov wished to dwell in peace, yet instead he moved from difficulty to difficulty throughout his sojourning. After claiming the brachot reserved for Esav from his father, he then struggled in the house of his father-in-law Lavan for twenty, where he was tricked and taken advantage of constantly. After running away and barely making it out from his father-in-law’s house, he then encounters and struggles with Esav. After his encounter with Esav, he suffers the ordeal of his daughter Dena’s rape and war with Shechem. After moving on from that, one would think he might find some peace, but instead the most beloved of his wives, Rachel, then dies during childbirth, and he is not even able to bury her in the resting ground of his forefathers. After Rachel dies, Yaakov’s father, Yitzchak Avinu dies, leaving Yaakov sole heir to the brachot and the responsibility carried by Avraham Avinu. After this Yosef is sold to Egypt, though Yaakov thinks that he has died. From that moment on, Yaakov is in mourning for his son, until the ordeal with the famine, and Yaakov then loses Shimon as well who is incarcerated in Egypt by Yosef. He must then suffer the temporary loss of Binyamin as he is brought down to Egypt, not knowing if he will return. Yaakov’s life was one challenge after another. While Avraham and Yitzchak seemed to have clear milestones in which they were tested and then passed said tests, Yaakov it seems wanders from test to test, not sure if he is even making progress. No wonder he considers his achievements and the “days of his living” as poor and few when compared to his father and grandfather.
It is not until next week’s parsha that Yaakov is given reprieve to look over his life. The parsha that begins with the words “vayechi – and he lived” recounts how after living 17 years in Egypt, Yaakov finally has time to reflect back on the life he led, and after doing so realizes that his life – while certainly filled with struggle – was indeed also filled with tremendous achievement and meaning. The Torah thus recounts at the beginning of next week’s parsha that “yemei shnei chayav – the days of Yaakov’s living – were 147 years.” Not just the days of his “dwelling” – but the years of his living. Years that can be accounted as having true meaning.
The Torah’s view of a life well-spent is in direct contra-distinction from how Egypt viewed life. For Egypt, “life” simply means existence, and the more of it you can get, the better off you seem to be. For this reason many attribute “length of days” as an achievement in itself. The Torah however, as seen in Yaakov’s answer, views living in terms of value. It’s not just about how long a person lives, but what kind of life have they lived. Though a person struggles in life, is the struggle worth it? Though a person may achieve certain things, are the achievements worth it? The sum total of a person’s life is not in the amount of years they have lived but in the quality and way in which they have lived that life. That is the message Yaakov Avinu gives to Pharaoh and in so doing, he has demonstrated the vast difference in perspectives between the two nations, and between him and Pharaoh.
A Torah life is one marked by living with meaning, living with values. I often tell my students that to live life one only needs a few things: food, water, shelter, and maybe some clothing. Are those items so difficult to acquire? Not really. Not always. Yet when people complain about life being difficult, they are not talking about the literal aspects of living life, of merely existing. What people are actually complaining about is that they feel their life doesn’t have much meaning. Living life isn’t difficult; living a life of meaning, however, can often be. No matter how challenging or difficult or even easy a person’s life is, the question we must always be asking ourselves is: is there meaning in how I choose to live my life? Am I doing the best I can with the tools and challenges that I have been presented with? Am I making certain to appreciate what I have and find meaning in the day-to-day struggles of being me? And can I embrace who I am and thank Hashem and appreciate the value in simply doing just that?
May we all be blessed to see our lives and life’s struggles with the context of meaning of purpose. If we are able to do that, then, like Yaakov, may we also merit to be able to see that our lives were truly “yemei shnei chayai” – years, full of meaning and life, and the beautiful purpose that we give to each and every moment of it.
יְמֵי֙ שְׁנֵ֣י מְגוּרַ֔י שְׁלֹשִׁ֥ים וּמְאַ֖ת שָׁנָ֑ה מְעַ֣ט וְרָעִ֗ים הָיוּ֙ יְמֵי֙ שְׁנֵ֣י חַיַּ֔י וְלֹ֣א הִשִּׂ֗יגוּ אֶת־יְמֵי֙ שְׁנֵי֙ חַיֵּ֣י אֲבֹתַ֔י בִּימֵ֖י מְגוּרֵיהֶֽם