Drashot on Parashat Vayyigash
Rabbi Martha Bergadine
United Jewish Congregation of Hong Kong
We are barely three months past Yom Kippur, yet many of us once again feel the need to take stock. Those of us who live with one foot in the stream of Jewish time and one in secular time feel the currents pulling as 2017 winds down. I don’t believe that’s all bad – the secular New Year can provide a checkpoint to assess our progress since the Days of Awe, and an opportunity to re-resolve to grow and change.
This week’s Torah portion provides a spur to this process. Va-yiggash is the climax of the Joseph saga – sold into slavery, imprisoned, but now second only to Pharaoh, Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers and forgives them. Joseph then arranges for his father’s household to settle in Goshen in Egypt, where his family will not only survive the seven-year-long famine, but thrive and grow prosperous.
Emotions run high in the parasha – there is shock, fear, relief, forgiveness, and joy. But it is a quiet moment between two old men that provides an opportunity for personal reflection.
When Jacob has arrived in Egypt, Joseph presents his father privately to Pharaoh, and Pharaoh asks him, “ How many are the years of your life?” (Gen47:8).
Jacob replies, “ The years of my sojourn (on earth) are one hundred and thirty. Few and hard have been the years of my life, nor do they come up to the life spans of my fathers during their sojourns.” (Gen 47:9)
Jacob has lived quite a life – he bested his twin, had four wives, 13 children, and countless grandchildren, grew wealthy, was reunited with a child he thought dead, who was not only alive but held a powerful governmental position, was saved from famine and provided and cared for in old age. Beyond even this, Jacob twice had personal encounters with God. And so his response to Pharaoh is striking in its pettiness.
There is no denying that Jacob’s life entailed struggle. In his translation and commentary The Five Books of Moses, Robert Alter describes the complexity of Jacob’s life:
He has, after all, achieved everything he aspired to achieve: the birthright, the blessing, marriage to 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 the way he would have wanted, and the consequence is far more pain than contentment . . . He displaces Esau, but only at the price of fear and lingering guilt and long exile. He gets Rachel, but only by having Leah imposed on him, with all the domestic strife that entails, and he loses Rachel early in childbirth. He is given a new name by his divine adversary, but he comes away permanently wounded. He gets . . . . twelve sons, but there is enmity among them (for which he bears some responsibility), and he spends twenty-two years continually grieving over his favorite son, who he believes is dead. This is, in sum, a story with a happy ending that withholds any simple feeling of happiness at the end.”
Rather than the story withholding a happy ending, is it Jacob who withholds happiness from himself? Nahum Sarna writes that in his statement to Pharaoh, Jacob “recalls the unbroken chain of misfortunes and suffering that has been his lot.
We have all known people like Jacob who focus only on the negative -– what others have that they do not, how their children have disappointed them, the ways they have been hurt. They see the world through a scrim that hides their blessings – that they do have plenty, the love of family, and the capacity to forgive and heal.
And we have all known people who, when faced with struggles and challenges that should seemingly embitter them, chose instead to embrace their blessings and live lives of gratitude and contentment.
No one’s life is easy. We will all experience loss, struggle, and hurt. But we will all experience blessings as well. The key is to take note of those blessings and fully appreciate them by cultivating a perspective of gratitude and contentment.
Even though Jacob did not feel his life a happy one, it does not mean his life was not well lived. Indeed, happiness may not be the best measure of a good life. The author and Yiddish lexicographer Leo Roston wrote,
The purpose of life is not to be happy at all. It is to be useful, to be honorable. To be compassionate. It is to matter, to have it make some difference that you lived.
As we approach the secular New Year, let’s ask ourselves –
Have I been grateful for what I have?
Have I forgiven others? Myself?
Have I been kind? Have I been a blessing?
May the growth we began at the turn of 5778 continue on, and fill our lives with gratitude, contentment, and blessing.