Poor, Poor, Pitiful Me: Vayigash 2015

by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Leadoff Questions: Why are we so compelled to complain about “what might have been”? Does regret help us cope with our past? Or does it only hinder our ability to manage the future?

Reunited with his sons in Egypt, Jacob has an audience with the Pharaoh. Jacob’s response to Pharaoh’s question is striking in its candor and frustration.

Text: “Pharaoh asked Jacob, ‘How many are the years of your life?’ And Jacob answered Pharaoh, ‘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 ancestors during their sojourns.’” (Genesis 47:8-9)

Commentary #1: “My hundred and thirty years have been full of hardship. Few have been the times of real joy and satisfaction for me. When I look back on my life, all I can see is pain, deception, servitude, familial strife, famine, bereavement – and now exile from my homeland. I have frequently prayed to the God of my fathers to take my life and end my sojourn here on earth, since I have lived most of my days mourning lost dreams and bemoaning my fate. What will they say about me when I am gone? How will they compare me with my grandfather and father? I will not have lived as long as they did, and I will not die content and fulfilled as they did. I pray for God to release me from this torment.” – Norman J. Cohen, Voices From Genesis: Guiding Us Through the Stages of Life

Commentary #2: “When Pharaoh politely asked his age, Jacob answered: ‘Unlike my immediate ancestors, I have aged rapidly. Few and evil have been the years of my life; a mere 130 in all.’ With that, he blessed Pharaoh and went back to Goshen. But God reproached him: ‘Jacob, I saved you from Esau and Laban; I saved Joseph from the pit and made him Viceroy of Egypt; and I saved this entire household from starvation! Yet you dare complain that your days have been few and evil! For this ingratitude I will shorten them by 32 years.’” – Agadat Bereshit

Commentary #3: “One wonders why Jacob summarizes his life so negatively, particularly now, when he has lived to know that Joseph is alive and witness the fame and honor his son has achieved. Perhaps, with the dissipation of tension and excitement, Jacob feels the weight of his years. He looks back on his flight from Esau to Haran and recalls the years of servitude to Laban, the jealous rivalries between his wives, the death of Rachel just when they had returned to Canaan, the terrible events involving Dinah and Bilhah, and, particularly, the long years during which he had wished to die, believing that his beloved Joseph had met his death in the claws of a wild animal.” – Yair Zakovitch, Jacob

Follow-Up Questions: Cohen attempts to paraphrase Jacob’s words to describe the extent of his anguish. Agadat Bereshit, meanwhile, seems to have little sympathy for Jacob’s complaints, indicating that God shortens his life due to his ingratitude. Zakovitch seems to take a more balanced understanding of Jacob’s perspective, noting that his sadness can be at least partially explained by his sudden ability to look back on his life, free from the constant tension that once consumed his attention.

Are you sympathetic to Jacob’s response? Is he too ungrateful for the gifts in his life? Can you relate to his broken heart? If you were Pharaoh, what, if anything, would you have said in response? Is it appropriate to look at imperfections in our own lives with a similar amount of regret?

Emanu-El Happenings: Who doesn’t love eating Chinese food on Christmas? Join us next Friday night, December 25th, as our Men’s Club maintains our Jewish “tradition” by preparing a Chinese-themed Shabbat dinner at 7:00PM, which will be followed by 8:15PM services. You can still RSVP to the Synagogue office early next week.

The Big Inning at the End: It’s unusual that my favorite team, the Chicago Cubs, is now considered World Series favorites. But especially after the recent additions of John Lackey, Adam Warren, Ben Zobrist, and (most importantly) Jason Heyward, that’s precisely what the team is. Still, any World Series champion must go through several obstacles before winning it all, and an expensive roster certainly is no guarantee for success. I wonder how my fellow Cub fans will feel if, in 2016, our team plays well but falls short of a championship. Will we be like Jacob and speak only with regret?

Shabbat Shalom!