Dealing with Suffering
Vayigash (Genesis 44:18-47:27 )
"Pharaoh said to Yaakov, 'How many are the days of the years of your life?" Yaakov answered Pharaoh, "The days of the years of my sojourns have been one hundred and thirty years. Few and bad have been the days of the years of my life, and they have not reached the life spans of my forefathers in the days of their sojourns." (Bereishit 47:8-9)
At the momentous meeting between Yaakov and Pharaoh, Pharaoh asks Yaakov his age. Yaakov gives a lengthy answer, explaining that he endured a very difficult life, but he had not lived as long as his fathers. This dialogue is difficult to understand. It's strange that of all the things that Pharaoh could have asked Yaakov, he chose to ask him his age. Equally enigmatic is Yaakov's lengthy and seemingly pessimistic answer about the pain that he had suffered.
The Ramban and Rashbam explain that Yaakov looked extremely old, and his appearance struck Pharaoh so much that he was aroused to ask how old Yaakov actually was. Yaakov answered him that although he was very old, he looked even older due to the many difficulties that he underwent in his life.
It still remains difficult why Yaakov offered such a seemingly pessimistic answer. Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman suggests that Yaakov did not want to arouse the jealousy of Pharaoh, so he emphasized the difficulties of his life.
Regardless of the reason for his answer, the Sages are critical of Yaakov, and note that he was severely punished for this dialogue. The Daat Zekeinim cite an astounding Midrash:
"At the time that Yaakov said, 'few and bad have been the days of my life', The Holy One said to him, 'I saved you from Esav and Lavan, I returned Dina to you, and also Yosef, and you complain about your life that they were few and bad?! By your life, the number of words from 'and [Pharaoh] said, until the 'days of their sojourns' so too will be reduced from your years, that you will not live to the age of your father, Yitzchak'. Because Yitzchak lived for 180 years, and Yaakov only lived for 147 years."
This Midrash criticizes Yaakov for characterizing his years as few and bad. As a punishment, Yaakov lost one year for every word in that dialogue, amounting to 33 words, and he only lived to 147 instead of the 180 years of his father's life.
There are two very important points that can be derived from this Midrash. The first is an incisive observation from Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz. He points out that Yaakov himself only used 25 words - the other 8 words comprised of the Torah's description of Pharaoh's initial question to Yaakov about his age. It's understandable that Yaakov was penalized for his own negative assessment of his life, but why should he be punished for Pharaoh's question?
Rav Shmuelevitz explains that Yaakov looked so old because of his attitude towards his sufferings. Had he not felt so negative about his life, then he would never have appeared so old, and he would never have aroused Pharaoh to immediately ask his age. Thus, in the same way that he lost 25 years for his attitude towards his pain, he even lost 8 years because that same attitude caused him to look in such a way that caused Pharaoh to even ask the question. This teaches us that a person's internal attitude reflects on his outward appearance, and if such an appearance transmits a negative message, then a person is held responsible for that.
A second important point can be gleaned from a careful reading of God's criticism of Yaakov. God did not say that Yaakov did not endure any difficulties, rather He focused on the four great difficulties that Yaakov faced in his life - Esav's threat to Yaakov, Yaakov's torrid time with Lavan, the episode of Dina's abduction, and the disappearance of Yosef. God noted that ultimately, He saved Yaakov from the threats of Esav and Lavan, and returned Dina and Yosef home. It seems that the emphasis of the criticism of Yaakov was that he focused on the pain of those events when instead he should have stressed the fact that God saved him each time, despite the fact that he endured untold suffering in the midst of those episodes.
This is a very powerful lesson. When delivered from an ordeal, how does one relate to the past events: does he focus on the pain and suffering, or on the final, positive result? God's stern rebuke of Yaakov teaches us that each person has an obligation to focus on the positive ending and not dwell on the pain. Moreover, Rabbi Shmuelevitz's additional observation makes an even more demanding requirement - that even if a person underwent great suffering, he still has a responsibility to radiate a happy expression.
May we merit to learn the lessons of the dramatic conversation between Yaakov and Pharaoh.
1. Needless to say, as is always the case, Chazal magnify the mistakes of the great people in the Torah to make their example relevant to us. Yaakov Avinu underwent more suffering than most people can even imagine, and he was evidently judged on a very exacting level for his words.
2. Sichos Mussar, Maamer 29.