> Weekly Torah Portion > Beginner > Brainstorming with Baars

Life Or Existence?

Vayigash (Genesis 44:18-47:27 )

by Rabbi Stephen Baars

Great vacations do not equal a great life.

Newly Revised

"There are those who are rich but have nothing and those who are poor but have everything." (Proverbs 13:7)

When does death occur? When the brain ceases to function? Or maybe when the heart fails to pump blood?

While this question is important, consider this: Maybe life stops long before either of these two calamities. Long before the ambulance is called, he's already DOA.

Life is not Coca-Cola and it's not fast cars. To misquote a famous song, we are frequently looking for life in all the wrong places. These wrong places make us think we are alive for a brief moment. But they have no depth of meaning or purpose. They pass and vanish as if they were never there.

After 60 years of chasing these illusions, the synapses of the brain may still be firing and the heart may still be ticking, but the life is all gone. This is the burn-out that we see on the faces of the old. They have given up because they never found the life for which they hoped.


* * *



In this week's Torah portion, Pharaoh meets Joseph's father, Jacob, and asks:

"How many are the days of your life?" (Genesis 47:8)

Jacob tells him:

"...130 years..." (Genesis 47:9)

Maybe you don't find Pharaoh's question strange, but consider this: As far as Pharaoh was concerned, Joseph was the wisest man in the world (Genesis 41:39). If you were going to meet the wisest man in the world's father, would you ask him how old he was?

I guess you don't have to think too long about that one.

Let me give you a clue: The reason he asked was because he already knew.



Joseph is Pharaoh's most important servant. Don't you think the Egyptian CIA would have done a full background check that surely would have included his father's age?

OK, so if Pharaoh knew how old Jacob was, why did he ask the question?

That's easy.


Think about it, if you were going to meet someone who was 130, what would make you ask how old he was?

Still can't figure it out? OK, have you ever met anyone who was 130?

Neither had Pharaoh.

So, try and imagine what a 130-year-old man would look like. You've seen 90, maybe even 100. Just extrapolate to 130.

Got it?

Now, you meet someone who you know is 130. What would make you ask him how old he was?

Because he wasn't what you expected. I told you it was obvious.

Pharaoh asked Jacob how old he was because Jacob didn't look the part. Of course Pharaoh had his meaningful questions prepared, but when he saw Jacob enter with such life, such vitality, he couldn't help himself but ask the question.

Pharaoh is not really interested in Jacob's linear age. Rather, upon seeing Jacob, Pharaoh wonders: Where is the shell of a man that one of your great age typically becomes? Pharaoh can see that Jacob is old, yet he bears none of the marks of a life of mere existence. Instead, Jacob exudes the appearance of a life that was fully lived. So Pharaoh asks: "How many days have you actually experienced living," as opposed to merely existing.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (19th century Germany) astutely explains:

"When one counts by years, one does not reckon any more the days. It is only with a few select people that each day is full of importance and is considered by them as having a special meaning. A really true human being does not live years but days.

"Similarly in the great psalm of Moses, in which the whole history of the world passes by as in a dream, it says at the end: 'If even a thousand years of world history mean no more than one minute, then a day means nothing.... Teach us to count our days!'

"Thus Pharaoh, too, says here: 'How many are the days of your life?' In these words, he reveals the deep impression which the whole appearance and dignified behavior of Jacob made on him."


* * *



More secrets are revealed in this week's Parsha. Jacob meets his son Joseph after many years of separation:

"And Jacob said to Joseph: I have seen your face and you are still alive!" (Genesis 46:30)

Now, if you remember the story, Jacob had thought that Joseph was actually dead all these years. When his sons told him that Joseph was really alive, he was obviously eager to see him.

Is this what we would expect him to say? "You are still alive?" Did Jacob really think his sons would fool him into thinking he was alive as a trick?

What is the meaning of this verse? Is it possible that Jacob could see Joseph's face and Joseph not be alive?

Rather, when Jacob's sons told him that Joseph was still alive they also told him another piece of news:

"He is the ruler of all Egypt." (Genesis 45:25)

Which is a greater test, the test of poverty or the test of wealth?

A rich man once answered my question thus, "Anyone who thinks wealth is an easier test never had wealth."

There is a principle of life: Anything that is meaningful is accompanied by difficulty. Wealth is meaningful.

Poverty presents people with two choices: Be poor and happy or be poor and depressed. If you have absolutely nothing and you are unhappy, boy are you unhappy. It's miserable.

However, wealth gives you three choices: Be rich and happy, be rich and depressed or, be rich and depressed but think you are happy.

You go shopping, redecorate, buy a new car. In other words, you avoid your issues and distract yourself.

When Jacob heard that Joseph was the ruler, he knew he existed, but he wanted to know, did the wealth go to his head, was he still alive?

For that, Jacob had to see his face. As our sages tell us, the eyes are the window to the soul.


* * *


OK, so here's the rub. The lessons of the Torah are not just in what it says, but also in what it leaves out.

Pharaoh could see that Jacob was alive just as Jacob could see that Joseph was really alive. So why couldn't Pharaoh see that Joseph was alive?

When one is young, especially young and rich, it is easier to fool yourself and others that you are really living as opposed to existing. It takes a discerning eye to see someone else's life-style is really not going anywhere. Most people don't want to look because to do so would also require a little introspection.

But that's the young. Everyone can see what kind of life you led when you get old.

To experience a meaningful life, it must be filled with meaningful days. A great vacation now and again just won't cut it. Smiling for the camera and laughing at the right jokes doesn't make for a life. Don't wait till it's obvious; do something meaningful today.


* * *



Question 1: When we reach our final years, we would all like to be able to look back and see a life that was fully lived. Right now, do you feel you are "existing" or "living?"

Question 2: Of all your current activities, which do you think will give you the most satisfaction in the long run?

Question 3: Which activity will you look back on as a waste of time?

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