Vayechi – Enter With a Smile
As I considered what idea to discuss this week it occurred to me that we’ve been engaging in Biblical criticism frequently on this forum. Biblical criticism, not in the academic sense, but in the sense that these thoughts have frequently been critical of actions or attitudes of Biblical characters, including our great forefathers. No human is beyond criticism, although there are very few people I am entitled to criticize. One should only point out faults in others when one is certain they do not exist within oneself. Nevertheless, the Torah records incidents portraying humanity and its weaknesses in order for us to glean lessons from them. It is not my intent nor within my purview to find fault with our ancestors. Please view any critical remarks concerning these characters as strictly for the sake of providing insight and moral lessons for us readers. With this introduction let us now continue our critical examination:
“And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt 17 years. And the age of Jacob was, the years of his life, 147 years. And the time for Israel’s death Israel drew near… (Genesis 47:28-30) These verses are puzzling. The Torah is emphasizing something about Jacob having lived 17 years in Egypt. If the Torah had not stated that explicitly we would have still known how long he had lived in Egypt. He came to Egypt at the age of 130 and he died, in Egypt, at the age of 147. Do the math. Furthermore, ‘his time drew near’ is a strange term, indicating that he died before his time should have come. Indeed, he should have lived as long as his father had, for 180 years. What is lurking here between the lines?
Last week we read of the meeting between Jacob and the Pharaoh. Pharaoh asks Jacob, “How many years have you lived?” Jacob responds, “The years of my life are 130, few and bitter were the years I have lived, and they have not reached the years of my fathers.”
Jacob is criticized for the way this conversation went. Pharaoh asked a simple question. He wanted to know Jacob’s age. Jacob went on to vent his bitterness to the Pharaoh about his difficult life, complaining that it had not reached the life span of his ancestors. (This is odd because he was still alive and well and who could say that his lifespan would not exceed that of his father?) The Midrash states that Jacob was punished for this. He was supposed to have equaled the life of his father, living another 50 years. Instead, he lived only another 17 years, dying when he was 147. His life fell 33 years short of his father’s life, the exact number of words which appear in the Torah’s recount of the conversation between Pharaoh and Jacob.
The answer to this, I have heard, was that Jacob’s bearing inspired the question in the first place. The Pharaoh’s first impression of Jacob prompted him to ask how old he was. You can imagine the Pharaoh meeting this grizzled, ancient man, his face covered with the furrows and worries of his difficult life. Pharaoh probably expected that Jacob was significantly older. Jacob did not age well. He looked far older than his years. He carried himself that way.
In Jacob’s defense, let’s not forget that he indeed had a difficult life. He lived in mortal fear of his brother, eventually fleeing to his uncle. There, he worked hard and was rewarded with marriages to two sisters, rivals who may have bickered through the next 14 years until Rachel’s death. He had to deal with constant deception from his uncle, eventually having to flee from Charan with his family. He encountered his brother and they reconciled, although not without significant anxiety which took a great toll on Jacob. His daughter was raped and he was devastated by the reaction of his children to even the score. Finally, hoping to settle and live in tranquility, his beloved son Joseph went missing, and he mourned him for 22 years, inconsolable.
After all this, the Torah takes Jacob to task for letting this show on his face.
Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel, the Alter of Slobodka, once chided a student for coming into a room with a frown on his face. “You are a thief. Your face,” he declared, “is public property. You have no right to ruin the day of everyone around you just because things aren’t going well for you!”
There is a similar story about Rabbi Yisrael of Salant, who once greeted another Jew he passed by on the street. The season was the month before Rosh Hashanah, and most of the Jews in town were busy preparing themselves, concentrating on repentance and introspection. This Jew as well, walked by with a frown on his face, not acknowledging the greeting of the rabbi. Rabbi Yisrael is said to have commented to his disciples, “Why does this person’s problem need to become everyone else’s problem?”
It is easy to say these things, easy to criticize others for wearing their issues on their sleeve, but it is not simple at all to fulfill. There are certainly days (just ask my wife) that I come home after a difficult day of work, with overwhelming problems to deal with, and I have less than a chirpy attitude. Why does my family need to bear the burden of my problems? At the same time there are many people walking around with a bounce in their step and a smile on their face. Many of these people carry burdens that would crush some of us, but they don’t let it show, they don’t allow it to affect the people around them.
It is our task to deal with the difficulties life presents us. It is our responsibility, however, to put our best face forward when interacting with others. Two times in Pirkei Avot the sages admonish us to receive each person cheerfully. It is very easy to do that when we are out and about, seeing people we don’t know and before whom we are not vulnerable. The challenge is at home, in our inner circles, presenting a cheerful front despite burdens weighing down on us. Sure, there are times when we could use the support of our family and friends and we should share our difficulties, but that shouldn’t be the first interaction or first impression.