By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim
And Pharaoh said to Jacob, “How many are the days of the years of your life?”
And Jacob said to Pharaoh, “The days of the years of my sojournings are one hundred thirty years. The days of the years of my life have been few and bad, and they have not reached the days of the years of the lives of my forefathers in the days of their sojournings.” – Exodus Chapter 47, Verses 8-9
The above interaction between Pharaoh and Jacob is rather perplexing. Pharaoh asked Jacob a simple question ‘How old are you?’ to which Jacob first responds appropriately by giving his age of one hundred and thirty years old. Why does Jacob find it necessary to tell Pharaoh about how awful his life has been? The simple explanation given by many commentators is that Jacob looked exceptionally old and haggard, and Pharaoh was essentially asking Jacob ‘Why do you look so old and haggard?’ Jacob responded by explaining to Pharaoh that despite his young age compared with that of his forefathers, he had suffered a terribly stress-filled and traumatic life.
Our sages teach us (Midrash Hagadol) that Jacob was punished because of this response to Pharaoh. In the Hebrew version of the verses quoted above, there are exactly thirty-three words. Jacob lived thirty-three years less than his father, Isaac, as a result of uttering these words of complaint.
This teaching is difficult to understand. Jacob had an incredibly traumatic life. His brother wanted to kill him, his father-in-law cheated him and attempted to kill him, the love of his life passed away in childbirth, his daughter was raped, he had to fight off antagonistic local inhabitants, his son Joseph was separated from him at the tender age of 17, and the list goes on. Can he really be blamed for viewing his life as bad, miserable, and traumatic? In addition to this, the thirty-three words that count against him include Pharaoh’s question. Surely he is only responsible for his response?
There is no question that Jacob had an incredibly challenging life. Our sages are, nonetheless, teaching us that although he could not have changed these challenging events, much of his suffering was not caused by the events themselves but by his attitudinal reactions to these events. Yes, there is no doubt that a certain measure of pain and suffering was unavoidable, but he suffered more than was necessary. He could have chosen to focus more on the bigger picture. He still had tremendous blessings in his life: his wives, eleven other sons, grandchildren, and much more. Perhaps his faith could have led him to the conclusion that all his tribulations were for a larger positive purpose. A significant part of his life was spent in unnecessary, self-inflicted depression, pain, and hardship. Therefore, he looked old and haggard and was punished for the words of Pharaoh expressing surprise at Jacob’s appearance.
We learn from this the tremendous responsibility we have for our own state of mind and happiness. The Torah obligates us to do all in our power to maintain our peace of mind and happiness despite our challenges. Let us work at fulfilling this divine obligation to maintain a sense of peace of mind and a joyful countenance.