Bitter, Bitter, Bitter — Or Maybe Not By Rav Uri C. Cohen There’s an old joke. Uh, two elderly women are at a Catskills mountain resort, and one of ‘em says, “Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.” The other one says, “Yeah, I know – and such small portions!” Well, that’s essentially how I feel about life. Full of loneliness and misery and suffering and unhappiness – and it’s all over much too quickly. – Alvy Singer (played by Woody Allen), at the beginning of the film Annie Hall. On the surface, at least, it certainly seems as if Yaakov agreed with Woody Allen here. When Pharaoh met Yaakov and asked how old he was, Yaakov responded: “The days of the years of my sojournings are a hundred and thirty years. Few and evil have been the days of the years of my life, and they have not attained the days of the years of my fathers in their days of sojourning” (Bereisheet 47:8-10, Alter translation). Was Yaakov so bitter that he couldn’t answer a simple question without launching into a rant about how miserable his life was? One possibility is that Yaakov was indeed bitter, but for good reason. For decades he lived in fear that his life was in mortal danger — from his own brother, no less (27:41, 32:8). During the same time, Yaakov worked around the clock for a boss who constantly took advantage of him (31:41). His unscrupulous father-in-law Lavan trapped him into not only a grueling job (31:40), but also a tense marriage to two sisters (29:25), neither of whom was happy with the situation (29:31-30:22). Not long after Yaakov’s family escaped from Lavan, Rachel died (35:19). She had been Yaakov’s true love (29:18), and now he would have to live the rest of his life without her. At least Yaakov had his favorite son Yosef, Rachel’s firstborn. But he too was taken away, apparently killed violently (37:33), and Yaakov mourned Yosef for decades (37:34, 42:36). All through that time, Yaakov’s family lived among the Canaanites, immoral people whom he was afraid could attack them at any point (34:30). That’s a lot more suffering and unhappiness than most Biblical characters went through.<1> Along the same lines, Professor Robert Alter points out that Yaakov “has, after all, achieved everything he aspired to achieve: the birthright, marriage with his beloved Rachel, progeny, and wealth. But one measure of the profound moral realism of the story is that although he gets everything he wanted, it is not in the way he would have wanted, and the consequence is far more pain than contentment.”<2> When Pharaoh asked him about his age — “How many are the years of your life?” — Yaakov took the opportunity to reflect soberly upon the years of his life, what he gained and what he lost.<3> A second possibility is that Yaakov was not being bitter, but rather was choosing to answer the question on a different level. According to the Ozerover Rebbe (Grand Rabbi Moshe Yechiel Epstein, 1889-1971),Yaakov reinterpreted Pharaoh’s question as a spiritual challenge: “Did you make the most of your life?” In his humility, Yaakov responded in a self-deprecating manner: “While the chronological quantity of my years is 130, the spiritual quality has been much less and lower. My fathers made much more out of their lives.” According to this approach, Yaakov’s answer was not a complaint about his life for not being happier, but rather a criticism of himself for not being holier. The Ozerover Rebbe adds that it may be that Yaakov spared Pharaoh the criticism; he answered “130” out loud, but reserved the negative evaluation for his own ears.<4> A third possibility is suggested by the Ramban (1194-1270). Yaakov was explaining, not complaining. After all, what prompted Pharaoh to blurt out the question about his age? It’s reasonable to say that Yaakov’s lifelong suffering caused him to age tremendously. Pharaoh took one look at him and his eyes bugged out. This old guy looked like he must have been at least 300! A similar situation appears in Roald Dahl’s novel Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. After Charlie’s Grandma Georgina is accidentally super-aged, everyone is horrified by her appearance: Propped up against the pillows at the other end of the bed was the most extraordinary-looking thing Charlie had ever seen! Was it some ancient fossil? . . . . Her tiny face was like a pickled walnut. There were such masses of creases and wrinkles that the mouth and eyes and even the nose were sunken almost out of sight. Her hair was pure white, and her hands, which were resting on top of the blanket, were just little lumps of wrinkly skin.<5> Charlie queries Grandma Georgina as to her earliest memory, and on the basis of her croaky answer (she sailed on the Mayflower) he concludes that she’s 358 years old. I believe this is what the Ramban has in mind when he describes the astonishment that led to Pharaoh’s question. According to the Ramban, Yaakov answered Pharaoh’s question by reassuring him that he was no older than 130. That’s not so old, Yaakov adds matter-of-factly — my fathers lived even longer. The only reason I look much, much older is that I’ve suffered a lot: “Few and hard have been the years of my life.”<6> Perhaps Yaakov wanted to make sure that Pharaoh would not be jealous of his longevity, so he emphasized the pain that went along with it. Which possibility is correct? Was Yaakov’s answer a complaint, a self-criticism, or an explanation? I think that however we answer that question, we should view Yaakov — and others who have suffered — with much more sympathy than we had before. NOTES 1. In the words of Dr. Erica Brown, “[T]here are few figures in Tanakh who suffer more than Jacob.” See her interesting article about this dialogue, “Strange Words Between Strangers: Jacob’s Encounter With Pharaoh,” in Ora Wiskind Elper and Susan Handelman, eds., Torah of the Mothers: Contemporary Jewish Women Read Classical Jewish Texts (Urim, 2000), p. 252. 2. Professor Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses (Norton, 2004), p. 273. Originally in his Genesis (Norton, 1996), p. 281. 3. Most traditional commentators presumably agree with this approach, as they do not reinterpret Yaakov’s bitterness. 4. Grand Rabbi Moshe Yechiel Epstein, Be’er Moshe on Bereisheet, pp. 800-801. 5. Roald Dahl, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator (1972), Chapter 18. 6. Ramban, Commentary on Bereisheet 47:9.