Genesis 44:18 – 47:27
Are you better off than your parents were?
One of the things that I enjoy the most is listening to my grandfather tell stories. Though he is suffering from Alzheimer’s which impairs his memories, his recall of the far-off past is still intact. It is those wandering stories that always kept me enthralled hour after hour. Now after all these years of our talks I see our time together becomes less frequent, so I cherish these moments all the more. I long to hear about what he has seen and done, to give context to how my family and I came to our place and position in life. I think it’s important to hear the scale of their challenges and the measure of their toil.
I’ll be honest with you, I often feel that the rest of my family doesn’t spend enough time taking with the grandparents about their history. And I hear the reasons why some shy away. I supposed it is easy to understand how one can be a bit intimidated by our elders often crotchety talk sometimes. In their senior repose, even the coming of good fortune can tend to be downplayed and met with a wry face.
This is how I picture the way that Yaakov Avinu reacts to his arrival in Egypt and his presentation to Pharaoh. He has been reunited with his long-lost son, and they are being granted amnesty in Egypt instead of suffering the famine of Canaan. As the night continues and Pharaoh tries to make conversation with Yaakov we see this awkward exchange. Pharaoh just asks him how old he is and we get this cranky response:
“And Yaakov said to Pharaoh
the days of my wandering
have been 130 years.
Few and bitter
have been the days of the years of my life,
and still I have not achieved
the day of the years
of the lives of my fathers
during the days of their wandering.”
| yemei shnei megurai
| shloshim ume’at shanah
| me’at vera’im
| hayu yemei shnei chaiai
| velo hisigu
| et-yemei shnei
| chaiei avotai
| bimei megureihem
Now we must ask ourselves, what is Yaakov saying here? Is he just falling into nostalgia or is he really saying something? Is this just the ranting of a tired old man, or is he trying to relay something?
I have to start this way because in modern-speak among the young people the word nostalgia doesn’t really mean the same thing it used to. Instead of nostalgia being the glowing admiration of the past that our parents saw, for the youth of today nostalgia means being crippled by the trapping of the past. As they say, nostalgia ain’t what it used to be. At this point most often the brains turns off. And that’s tragic, because there is a wonderful lesson that is completely relevant to our generation which can be learned by listening to what Yaakov has to say here.
If we actually take notice we will see that Yaakov is not so much praising his past. He isn’t really rose-tinting the old-days. In fact what he says about his life is kind of striking. Here at 130 years old he says his days were “me’at ve’ra’im / few and evil.”
On one hand we can look at it this way, Yaakov is 130 years old but he has not lived as long as his fathers Abraham and Isaac, who lived about 180 or so. So is he begrudging that he doesn’t seem to have the longevity of his forefathers?
Yaakov’s life is not yet over when he makes this statement, this is said upon his arrival in Egypt. Surely this was not the end of his life that he could speak which such certain remorse. Secondly, having lived 130 years he is not exactly having his days cut short. Sure, he didn’t live as long as his ancestors. But he did live beyond the normal 120 years we associate with natural life.
What some fail to recognize about this verse is that he is not talking about his life being short. He is saying that his megurai – his sojourn, his journey, his pilgrimage has been short. His wandering has been short.
Now how can he say this? Is it not true that Yaakov spent many years on the run away from home? In fact if anything his wandering in life actually ate up a lot of his early years. His years spent with Laban in service for his wives were 14 years alone. We aren’t exactly sure how many years he spent on the run from Eisav and in his journey to return home to Canaan.
But he did have a lot of years spent in servitude after running away, we can’t ignore that. However, in the context of his youth it is said, “And Yaakov served seven years for Rachel; and they seemed to him but a few days, because of the love he had for her.” (see Genesis 29:20) Many years were consumed with hardship, but he didn’t get overwhelmed by them because of his passion that propelled him. In his mind those days went by quickly. He can’t be talking about the flight of his youth here.
The reason why most quickly jump to the conclusion that he is talking about his sojourn when he left Canaan is because those days were indeed “ra’im / bitter,” or literally evil. They were days of calamity. He was on the run for his life from his brother, he was oppressed by his uncle, he was swindled for being lovesick, and he wrestled with his nature and with the divine through an angel as well. But that doesn’t seem to be what he is talking about.
Many midrashim that bring clarity to this text actually point us back to the start of Parshat Vayeishev, which just recently passed. There we see another contrast between Yaakov and his forefathers:
“Yaakov dwelt in the land |
of his father’s sojournings, |
in the land of Canaan.” |
וַיֵּשֶׁב יַעֲקֹב בְּאֶרֶץ
בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן :
In this light we see things very different. Instead of Yaakov being the wander, we see him as the settled one. He’s made his yeshuv, his settlement. But it is his fathers that were the sojourners, they were the wanderers. As we see when it comes to the life of Avraham and even Isaac, they traveled around in their tents. They owned land, but they were not settled men. They could not be settled men because they were gerim – they were strangers, they were outsiders, they were migrants. Unlike Yaakov, they were not recognized as born there as citizens on the land and were always contended with as foreigners in the eyes of the Canaanites. This always kept them on the move. In contrast Yaakov just returned to the land that was previously settled by them and dwelt there, and lived out a pretty sedentary life until he is brought down to Egypt in this week’s parsha. He ran early on in his life, but in the end he live consecutively in one place more than his forefathers had.
And that seems to be what Yaakov is getting at. Abraham and Isaac roamed the valleys and plains of Canaan. They ran the wild, wide-open habitation they made for themselves all the days of their lives.
Yaakov returned home to Canaan find himself dwelling to maintain a legacy settlement home. And though he was in one place and physically at rest, his mind and heart was never at rest.
By and large our midrashim and the commentary of our sages point out the fact that Yaakov’s years were indeed bitter because of the loss of his son Yosef. Add to that the untimely loss of his beloved wife, Rachel Imenu. Compound that with the callous and treacherous ways of his sons, as also displayed in acts like their massacre of Shechem. He returned home to settle, but little did he rest because of his worries. Though he dwelt securely in the land for many years, his days were consumed with worry that made them pass fast and furiously.
When I consider all this, I don’t see Yaakov as bitter that he didn’t get to live a full cowboy-like existence that his forefathers did, as much I see a man who was exhausted from the burden of property and maintaining that established legacy he fought so hard to win. I believe what is going on Yaakov is that when he considers his life he doesn’t see any of the pioneering and grand goals his fathers had. His forefathers established new settlements, built their many wells to secure the future of that land. They had the thrill of being the founder and inventor, and not so much the burden of being the boss. He seems almost envious of their freedom. Likewise it can be seem that for all the things that Yaakov did accomplished, he never achieved the things his forefathers did.
Now when Yaakov is called to recount his years, looking back his days seem quite few and his life profoundly bitter. And this is how Yaakov answers the Pharaoh who seems to be humoring him, right before Yaakov blesses him and leaves.
As I look at these word of Yaakov I also begin to see another truth revealed to me when I look at the words, “velo hisigu et-yemei shnei chaiei avotai / and still I have not reached the days of the lives of my fathers.” We have to remember one of the reasons that Yaakov and his sons are there to begin with, because there is a famine in their land. All the settlements and accomplishments of his forefathers were abandoned and he was forced to take sanctuary again in foreign land.
What I believe Yaakov is saying here is that he did not achieve (hisigu) in his lifetime what his forefathers did in leaving something better behind for his children. His fathers acquired much, they build upon the foundation of the previous generation, and had an impressive inheritance to leave behind. In contrast Yaakov was leaving his children in financial ruin, abandoning their family home and they were now receiving foreign aid. He didn’t appear to be leaving his children off better than his fathers left him.
In conclusion, we have often talked about the topic yeridah ha-dorot – the decent of generations, that as generations go by men seem to grow smaller. The men of the old days, they just can’t happen in our day. They just don’t make men the way they used to. (see Parshashiot of Lech Lecha and Vayeira 2012, Parshat Vayeira 2013)
We have even seen this attitude mirrored in our culture in more recent years by people like Tom Brokaw, dubbing our seniors that lived through The Great Depression and World War II “The Greatest Generation.” Likewise we see all the documentaries and books glowingly praising their public works and social justice accomplishments, ones that sadly lack today even though we have the know-how. We are puny men in their shadow, the trope goes.
Sure there is a level of this reflected in Yaakov’s statement, however I believe it is the position of destitution that irks him the most. Yaakov is happy to be reunited with his son Yosef here, but bitter to be doing so as a refugee.
So what lesson can people who have a full life ahead of us learn from this reflection of Yaaakov? What kind of things should we consider to make sure we don’t look back with bitter regret? Here are some suggestions:
First off, that we should try to live our lives so that we do not look back regretful of many years of running from and wrestling with one’s self-identity. Much of Yaakov’s personal suffering was due to that. Have you made peace with yourself?
Secondly, we need to also set great goals. We need to set our mark in the way that the generations before us did. We need to be original and ground breaking. We need to demand better than we had in our previous generation, not satisfied to just inherit what our parents built. We need to ask ourselves, are you better off than your parents were?
And lastly, are you leaving your children better off than your parents left you? I’m not just asking are you leaving an inheritance to your children. What I’m asking is, are you leaving your children in a better position that you were? It’s more than just considering if you are leaving your children anything more than a legacy of debt. Are your children and grandchildren poised for a better future? Have you left them a society that is more civil than the one before? Better yet, have you left them a country that has more opportunities and economic promise than you inherited?
If we can’t say yes to these things, maybe we really need to do something before we look back with regret instead of nostalgia.