I always liked my name for this Torah portion which is usually called Vayigash. It’s the one where Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and they all break down in shock and tears. Instead of calling it Vayigash, I call it “Oh-My-Gosh”!
Pharaoh is delighted that Joseph’s family has come to live in Egypt. After all, if Joseph proved to help him and Egypt so much—saving them from famine and desolation and making Pharaoh so rich—imagine how much more blessing all the brothers and the entire family would bring. Joseph brings some of the brothers to meet Pharaoh and then he brings his father Jacob. Their encounter is very strange. Pharaoh asks Jacob (Gen, 47:8-9), “How old are you?” which seems highly impolite, and Jacobs’ response is odd. He says, “I’m 130 years old. Few and bad have been the days of the years of my life, and they have not reached the life span of my fathers.”
The Sages read this and collectively exclaim, “What?! What kind of an answer is that?” He didn’t reach the years of his fathers? He’s not dead yet and perhaps he will. Is his life over? As it turned out he lived another 17 years. Listen to what the Midrash supposes that Gd told Jacob about that remark: “I saved you from Esav and Lavan, and returned Dina and Joseph to you, and yet you complain that your life has been short and unhappy! Therefore you shall not live as long as your father.” The Daas Zekeynim notes that Jacob was punished for this lack of appreciation and lived 33 years less than his father corresponding to the 33 words of complaining in these 2 verses.
I don’t think we need to hit anyone over the head to understand the lesson the Midrash is conveying to us. Yes Jacob had a difficult life. He had a brother who sought to kill him. He had a father-in-law who deceived him. He was tricked into marrying the wrong woman. He fought with an angel. He saw his children fight.
But there were some really good times. He had a mother who adored him. He married the love of his life. He had several intense and pivotal encounters with Gd. He lived to see his children reunited. He was 130 years old. How could he say that his years were few and bad? Why such a melancholy outlook? What’s up with Jacob?
Jacob’s problem is that—like so many of us—he focuses upon his tzuris—his unhappiness, his trials, his problems. But the truth is that there is joy to be found in our lives, no matter what life throws at us. Sometimes, life is unbearably tough, but at other times, life is wondrous and joyous. But, as the cliché puts it: “Time marches on.” The World continues to turn, and we with it. We can wallow in the pain of the past or we can say, “That was then. This is now.”
A wise rabbi I met in Florida at a Rabbinical conference said something in a lecture that stuck with me: “There are 3 things you cannot change. You cannot change other people. You cannot change the past. You cannot change the truth.” Some people get “stuck” in their recollections. Refusing to let go of the pain and regret of the past can affect your health. It will drag you down. If you keep at it long enough, it can alter the way your mind works and with it, even your body chemistry. And yes, it can shorten your life, just as it did father Jacob’s.
Soldiers in combat and rape victims can be so badly traumatized that they can’t let go—their horrific experiences are the seeds of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). These people are not cowards! Their minds are in a state of “dis-order.” We help them back to productive lives by teaching them to take the trauma of the past and put it in a place in their minds where it will no longer interfere with their lives. Will they ever forget what happened? Sadly no, but they can place it in context. They can understand that those events are passed, and they, themselves, are now safe. They can learn to deal with the feelings that attempt to wash over them when they least expect it. They learn that it’s all right to learn from the past, but we cannot allow the awful things that have happened to us to define us, to take over our lives.
Gd didn’t want Jacob’s wallowing in his past hardships to become a model for his children, for the Jewish People—who then stood on the brink of transforming from a family into Gd’s people. The Jewish people, like father Jacob, would experience hardship after hardship, but Gd wanted them to nevertheless find the joy in life—despite its difficulties. And that’s what we did. After the Roman persecutions and expulsion, after the Crusades, the Inquisition and the Holocaust we never became bitter. We continued to live a Torah life and to celebrate life.
Rabbi Scheinbaum writes in his masterwork Peninim on the Torah: “How important it is that we open our eyes and experience the goodness which Hashem grants us. Everyone has his or her own ‘baggage’ of hardships. To allow ourselves to be completely overwhelmed by troubles, never thinking about the good moments which we are accorded is wrong! A malcontent attitude to life is not only self-destructive, but it is also not a Jewish attitude!”
When we get stuck and wallow on the difficulties of the past we look for someone to blame—sometimes it’s someone else and sometimes it’s ourselves. I would have you consider that it’s just part of the challenges we need to face in life.
I’m reminded of the story about a man who went to the doctor and said, “You know, every time I touch my forehead it hurts terribly; and every time I touch my cheek, it hurts terribly; and every time I touch my stomach; it hurts terribly.” The doctor said he thought the man needed to see a specialist.
A week later, the man returned to his doctor. His doctor asked, “What did the specialist say?”
The man replied, “He said that I have a broken finger!”
My friends, if we’re in pain, we have to make the correct diagnosis. We should not be angry with ourselves or with others. We should muster all our strength and say, “That was then. This is now.” And move on, understanding that what has happened, happened for us to experience and learn from…and that who knows—like father Jacob who lived a wonderful 17 more years—what life has in store for us ahead. Amen!