Genesis 47:28 – 50:26
Last week as I studied the Torah portion, after reading numerous rabbinic commentaries, an image emerged of Jacob’s soul-to soul connection to his son, Benjamin. Upon reading this week’s portion and many more commentaries later, another, less complimentary side of Jacob’s personality was brought forth. I love that our tradition allows this—models human complexity, imperfection and contradiction.
This week’s Torah portion opens: “Jacob lived in the land of Egypt for seventeen years. Jacob’s days—the years of his life—were seven years and forty years and one hundred years.” [Gen: 47:28]
In his commentary, Rabbi Yaakov Ben Asher (13th c. Germany) notes the peculiar way Jacob’s lifetime is accounted for in this verse. Contrary to that of our other two forefathers, this account mentions the lesser numbers first, while the Torah records Abraham, for example, to have lived “a hundred and seventy years and five years” [Gen. 25:7]. Rabbi Ben Asher resolves this contradiction by teaching that the smaller number, seven years, is mentioned here first because, at Jacob’s own admission, “Few and bad have been the days of the years of my life” [Gen. 47:9]. But this is not the only aspect of the text that bothers R. Ben Asher. Next, he brings our attention to the first word of our quote: “Vayechi – lived.” Why does Torah choose this specific word? Why not use “settled” or “spent” instead, which are more commonly found in Torah? He tells us that here, in contradistinction to Jacob’s negative self-report, he seems to have truly “lived,” to have been fully alive and happy during these seventeen years in Egypt. How come? He reminds us that we encountered the number “seventeen” just a few chapters earlier, when we first met his favorite son Joseph, and he was seventeen. From there, Rabbi Ben Asher draws a parallel between the last seventeen years of Jacob’s life and the first seventeen years of Joseph’s life, before the latter is sold by his brothers into slavery and Jacob is led to believe that he was killed by a wild beast. The answer comes to him through the Gematria of the word “Vayechi – lived,” which adds up to thirty four. And this, he concludes, “teaches that Jacob did not have any good years without suffering except for thirty four [of them], that is, seventeen years from Joseph’s birth until he was sold and seventeen years in Egypt [during which he and Joseph were together again].”
Unwittingly perhaps, R. Ben Asher helps us uncover a darker side of Jacob. Jacob’s myopia—his choice to link the “good years” exclusively with this one son—so severely limits his vision, that he, de facto, cuts himself off from experiencing the fullness of the rest of his life. He fails to relate to the unique blessings of each of his wives, of each of his children. He fails to take responsibility for the disfunction in his family that will continue to manifest itself for centuries in the rivalry between the Israelite tribes. Then again, the Torah does not paint portraits of perfect heroes, but helps us see our own flaws reflected in theirs. Who among us can claim that they do not suffer, at times, from the same myopia as Jacob? Who hasn’t failed to recognize the unique blessings of people who walked in and then out of our lives? How often do we make our happiness contingent on a single issue or a single person, and drive ourselves and others around us miserable because of it? And so perhaps we can learn to become more aware of the ways we surrender our intrinsic power to be happy to something outside of ourselves: the objects of our unending desires, or the opinion of others. Perhaps we can open ourselves to the possibility that happiness might be a state of being, not a hope of becoming; an opening now to the blessings right in front of us, not a postponing of that realization conditioned on a different yesterday or a better tomorrow. Because Jacob’s happiness was conditional to a fault, he was miserable for a hundred and thirteen years of his life. And that’s a mighty long time to waste!