When Years Seem like a Few Days

November 24, 2020

3 min read


Vayetzei (Genesis 28:10-32:3 )

He (Jacob) said, “Look, the day is still long; it is not yet time to bring the livestock in; water the flock and go on grazing” (Genesis, 29:7).

Jacob was rather harsh in reprimanding the shepherds. Wasn't it obvious that the stone covering the well was so massive that it required many men to move it? The Rabbi of Gur (Imrei Emes) said that Jacob was aware of this, but that he rebuked them for not trying to move it. But is it not possible that they had in fact tried but could not move it? Yes, but just because they failed once, why were they not trying again? But how did Jacob know that they had not tried repeatedly? Was his rebuke justified?

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch sheds light on this episode by asking, why was it necessary to cover the well with so massive a stone? Could they not have covered it with something not quite as heavy? He answers that the shepherds were suspicious of one another, and feared that a lighter cover would enable one of them to uncover the well on his own and take an unfair share of the water for his flock. In order to prevent this, they made it impossible to have access to the water unless they were all present.

Jacob understood this, and reasoned that people who had no trust in one another were likely to be indolent and not exert themselves. Traits are infectious. Trust and diligence are likely to go hand in hand, as are distrust and sloth. Jacob knew that they had not even tried to uncover the well.

Even in a competitive world, we should have faith that what God decreed for us to have cannot be taken from us. Begrudging other people's success because we may think that it comes at our expense is a contemptible character trait, and unless we rid ourselves of this trait, it may affect other aspects of our character.

Character traits are not likely to exist in isolation. True faith in God and to fargin others (be happy for someone else's good fortune) tend to go together.

So Jacob worked seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him a few days because of his love for her (29:20)

Some of the commentaries note that this appears to be the reverse of what we usually experience. Being separated from someone one loves makes each day of separation feel like an eternity. How could it be that Jacob's love for Rachel made seven years seem like but a few days?

I am indebted to one of my patients for an insight into this verse. This young man was recovering from an addiction to alcohol. He had become dependent on alcohol, and the thought that he could never drink again was intolerable. When he joined the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous, he was told not to focus on the rest of his life, but to deal with just this day. “It is not impossible for you to abstain from drinking just today, is it? Then focus only on what you must do today. There is nothing you can do today about tomorrow's sobriety, so there is no point in contemplating it.”

I have found this principle in the works of mussar. The yetzer hara (evil inclination) says, “What point is there in trying to observe all the Torah prohibitions? There is no way you can do so for the rest of your life. You are certain to violate Torah in quest of your desires. Why fight a losing battle? Why struggle and deny yourself so many pleasures when you are doomed to fail at it? You might as well just give in now.” The response to the yetzer hara should be, “I do not have to deal with the rest of my life today. I know that today I can withstand temptation, and that is all I am concerned with. When tomorrow comes, I'll deal with that challenge then.”

The literal translation of the verse above is not “they seemed to him a few days.” The Hebrew word achadim means “single days.” The delay of seven years would have been very difficult to manage. Jacob, therefore, did not think of seven years, but took each day as it came. He could tolerate the deprivation today, and that was all that was necessary.

This is an important lesson for us. It is commonplace for people to make “New Year's resolutions,” and these are soon broken. The reason for this is that a year is too great a task to undertake. One should resolve, “I will not lose my temper today,” or “I will not smoke today” or “I will adhere to my diet today.” Reducing challenges to smaller segments of time makes them much more manageable.

Next Steps