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Pharaoh said to Jacob: 'How old are you?' (literally, 'How many are the days of your life')
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) explains the words: 'How many are the days of your life?' as referring to the quality of Jacob's life. He meant: 'How many truly meaningful days have there been your life?' And in response, Jacob assessed his quality of life with: 'My (130 years of) life is not comparable to the lives of my fathers. They lived more, in the sense that every day of their existence was 'living', and they were able to carry out their missions to humanity under cheerful conditions'. Whereas much of his own life was tension, struggle, worry, and grief. His own life lacked the quality and the achievement of his forbears, Abraham and Isaac.
What did Jacob have to gain by unfavorably comparing his life with them? Both Abraham and Isaac had gone through troubles of their own, from which Jacob was spared. Abraham could no longer contain his oldest son Ishmael, throwing him out of the house - permanently. Isaac and Rebecca also suffered much grief with Esau's marrying Canaanite women. Whereas Jacob (apart from in two isolated incidents) lived at one with his sons - whether they were physically present or not. He was critical of them, but not to the degree that he could not confer the patriarchal blessing on each and every one of them before his death (49:28). True, his children made their mistakes. But none of his children married out. None of his children left the fold. None of his children were unworthy to bear his traditions.
However, there was one quality lacking from much of Jacob's life - personal harmony. A person must have that very deep joy of personal harmony to be able to 'tune in' to receiving the word of G-d.
This is evident in the story of the Prophet Elisha. When Moab rebelled against Israel after King Ahab's death, his successor sought directions from G-d through Elisha. Elisha's response was: 'Fetch me a musician - as he plays, the Hand of G-d will be on me' (Kings II 3:15). Rashi and Metzudot David explain that Elisha was deeply distressed at the time - because of the Israelite leadership following idolatry. He needed music to bring him to the inner harmony needed to receive the word of G-d.
Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all needed - and received - the word of G-d. (Indeed, G-d actually describes Abraham as a 'prophet' - 20:7). They were the triple-linked chain that brought monotheism (the worship of one G-d) to humanity. Their mission - carried out by personal example, personal contacts, and positive influence over others was directed by communications from the Creator.
Abraham and Isaac had their troubles, but they did not feel they were outside their control, or life's progress and purpose. Even when Abraham did the very unpleasant act of expelling his oldest son Ishmael from his household, he was reassured that he was working in harmony with the Creator. For G-d indeed did tell him to throw him out (21:12). Similarly, Isaac enjoyed a similar sense of synchronization with G-d in knowing he was doing the 'right thing'. He grasped that Esau was of a completely different temperament to Jacob and he allowed - indeed encouraged - him to use his very different nature for the good (c.f. 27:2-4). And even Esau's marrying into Canaanite families was hardly without precedent - Ishmael (who like Esau was not destined to bear the Abrahamic tradition and mission) married an Egyptian woman (21:21).
But Jacob's sufferings were different, because he appears to have lost contact with the Creator. When presented with Joseph's blood-bespattered coat, he believed that Joseph was no longer alive. The deep grief cut off his prophecy - his direct contact with G-d.
Only when he heard the news that 'Joseph is still alive, and he is ruling the land Egypt' (45:26) did the connection with G-d return: 'the spirit of Jacob revived' (45:27). Indeed, only then did the word of G-d return to him: 'Do not fear to go down to Egypt, for I will make you a great nation' - 46:3.)
That is what made the years of Jacob 'few and bad' - in that his grief stood between him and receiving the word of G-d for much of his life: meaning that he could not continue the mission of Abraham and Isaac as they did, which was closest to his heart.
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Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: email@example.com for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
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Also by Jacob Solomon:
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