Smiling From The Pain
There is a short exchange in this week’s Torah portion between Jacob/Yaakov and Pharaoh. After Joseph reconciles with his brothers, he instructs them to come down with their families to Egypt and join him in living there. After they settle in, he introduces some of his brothers and his father to Pharaoh. Pharaoh had a lot of love and respect for Joseph for saving his country from economic ruin and he was anxious to meet other members of the family.
The first words out of Pharaoh’s mouth when he sees Yaakov are, “How old are you?!!” It is a curious remark and certainly not the first thing one would expect a world leader to utter upon seeing another well-respected person; impolite even. Adding to the awkwardness of that moment was Yaakov’s response, “My journey through life has been 130 years. The days of my life have been few and bad and they have not reached the lifespan of my forefathers.”
Ouch. Sorry I brought it up.
The commentaries focus on what prompted this odd exchange between these two very powerful men and the Midrash (part of the Oral Tradition) even takes Yaakov to task for his response. It relates that God declared, “I saved you from Laban, returned to you Joseph and Dina, and you are saying that your years are few and bad?” Apparently God was quite upset with Yaakov for his negative attitude and for every word of this dialogue, 33 words in total, he lost a year off his life as punishment and indeed did not live nearly as long as his father or grandfather.
This seems to be a bit harsh because in truth, Yaakov did have a very difficult life and we all know that difficulties do take their toll on a person. One who lives with much stress and pain, as Yaakov did from all of the years of missing Joseph, his conflicts with Esau, the many years of mistreatment from Laban and the violation of Dina – all of it was bound to leave its mark on his face, appearance and posture. Hence it was no surprise that Yaakov looked a bit rough and much older than his biological years.
On the other hand, what the Midrash seems to be indicating is that inasmuch as those conflicts have all been resolved at this point in his life, Yaakov should have given off a different demeanor. And especially in light of the fact that Yaakov is also called Yisrael – he represents God’s Chosen People – albeit only a clan at this point but still that special group with whom God has made a covenant and who will give rise to a people who will be a Light Unto Nations.
It sends a very negative message when God’s representative looks so beaten and withered that it creates a degree of astonishment in Pharaoh to make him blurt out, “Gosh, How old are you?!” And this negative message is only reinforced when Yaakov complains bitterly about his life to Pharaoh. Is this what is means to be chosen by the Almighty, to be God’s special emissary? To have a life of bitterness, fatigue and difficulty?
King David writes in his Psalms to “serve God with Joy” and one ought to see that his or her place as part of the Jewish people is one of privilege and specialness. The Yiddish phrase, S’iz shver tsu zayn a Yid – “It is difficult to be a Jew” may be one of the worst PR lines for Judaism in all of history.
Yes it is difficult to be a Jew. It is also difficult to be a professional football player, to be a father or mother, to run a company, to run the marathon, to be a good wife or husband, to act with honesty and integrity, or to lose weight. All meaningful things in life are difficult. That is the nature of the game. But it is also what makes our lives worth living. If you are going to express your difficulties verbally and through body language, then you better make sure you do the same for the successes that all those difficulties have produced.
Now that Esau and Laban are a distant memory and both Dina and Joseph have come home and you stand before Pharaoh with your children and grandchildren, stand erect and have a light in your eye. And when Pharaoh asks you how old you are, tell him you have had 130 very hard years, but that every second of it was worth it and if you had to do it all over again, you would not have changed a thing. “You Pharaoh will never go through the hardships I have been through, but at the same time you will never know the depth of joy at seeing my son Joseph today and what he has become. Who would have known after all those painful years of missing my beloved son that he would end up as the Vice-President of the most powerful nation on earth!”
On a personal note, as a survivor of the Holocaust, my father went through hell and back. Afterwards he worked extremely hard to become successful at raising a family and making a living, getting up at 4:00 am every morning to go to the meat-packing plant. But in his latter years he would sit quietly, beaming and glowing with pride and nachat at the family he raised and the grandchildren that surrounded him, often declaring that his life was like a dream that he could not envision in a million years.
And so too we Jews must stand before the world with life, vigor, strength and joy and tell the world that while it has been very very rough at times through our history, today our nation is strong, our people great, our power immense, our influence overwhelming and our future promising.
Maybe I’m in the black, maybe I’m on my knees
Maybe I’m in the gap between the two trapezes
But my heart is beating and my pulses start…
So you can hurt, hurt me bad
But still I’ll raise the flag
Every teardrop is a waterfall