Jacob's Elderly Appearance

December 17, 2012

3 min read


Vayigash (Genesis 44:18-47:27 )

Jacob's life was shortened as a result of his complaint.

The powerful book "Chassidic Tales of the Holocaust" tells the story of a mother and her daughter, Livia, who somehow managed to survive the war. Looking out for each other, encouraging each other day after horror-filled day, they made it through the terror of several concentration camps.

After the war, a sympathetic German woman looked at Livia and commented, "It must have been very difficult for people your age to endure all this suffering."

"How old do you think I am?" Livia asked her.

"Maybe 60 or 62," replied the woman.

"No. I'm 14," replied Livia.

Terrified upon hearing this, the women crossed herself and fled.

The enormous effect that sorrow can have upon a person's visage figures prominently in this week's Torah portion, Vayigash. In the narrative, the aged patriarch Jacob is brought before Pharaoh and gives him a blessing. Pharaoh then asks Jacob how old he is. Jacob responds: "Few and bad have been the days of the years of my life, and they have not reached the years of the life of my forefathers in the days of their wanderings."

The commentaries note that in fact Jacob did have a miserable life. For decades, he lived in fear that his brother Esav would murder him. Then he spent 20 years working for his wicked uncle Lavan, who constantly cheated him and made him work under the most difficult physical conditions. Then Dina, Jacob's only daughter, was tragically raped. Later, Jacob spent many years in sorrow, convinced that his beloved son Joseph had died.

But, despite going through all this pain (and perhaps in part because of it), Jacob managed to become a great tzaddik. In fact, he worked so hard on improving his character, that many classical sources describe Jacob as "the most righteous person who ever lived."

Given that he had reached such a high level of righteousness, Jacob's comment to Pharaoh about his "life of great difficulty" seems inappropriate. While the average person may complain about life's trials, a tzaddik is not supposed to!

The Midrash goes on to describe God's consternation with Jacob's comment. The Almighty tells Jacob: "I provided you with a refuge from Esav and Lavan, returned to you both Dina and Joseph - and you're complaining?!"

The Midrash concludes that Jacob's life was shortened as a result of these words of complaint. For if Jacob (or anybody else) does not fully appreciate life, then why should he be granted longevity?!

Other commentaries, however, explain the incident with Pharaoh differently. They say that Pharaoh was overwhelmed by the ancient-looking appearance of Jacob, and asked about his age. Jacob, realizing that his appearance made him seem far older than he actually was, felt compelled to explain to Pharaoh the cause of this phenomenon, and described the difficulties he had faced in his life.

Thus, in the view of these commentaries, Jacob's words were not a complaint, but rather an explanation of his appearance. As a great tzaddik, he would not (especially to a public personage such as Pharaoh) utter bitter complaints about his life. Rather, Jacob was explaining how the tragedies of life had become etched on his visage ... just as they would on his great-granddaughter, Livia, some millennia hence.

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