January 3, 2020—
A colleague once told me that he always liked the name of this week’s Torah portion. It’s the one where Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and they all go into shock and tears. He calls it Parshat “Oh-My-Gosh.” (The real name is Vayigash (Genesis 44:18-47:27))
In celebration of all that has gone on, Pharaoh invites all of Joseph’s people to live in Egypt, and he is most honored to meet Joseph’s father, Jacob. As we know, Jacob is a pious man who is beholden to God for everything he has. But the Rabbis are concerned for him when they read his answer to Pharaoh’s question about his age in 47:9. Jacob finishes his short discourse with “…few and unhappy have been the days of the years of my life.”
The rabbis offer their understanding while commenting on a difficult Midrash. It would seem that the Rabbis of the Midrash collectively read this and said “WHAT”? Hear what the Midrash supposes that God told Jacob about that remark: “I saved you from Esau and Laban, and returned Dinah 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.” Thus the rabbis interpret this as the reason that Jacob did not, in actuality, live as long as his father, Isaac. The implication is that God did, indeed, shorten Jacob’s lifespan because of this remark.
The rabbis use this quip to teach us an important lesson. Traditionally, the belief is that God rewards and punishes the sages. We are to take a good look at Jacob’s life. The rabbis teach, “Yes, Jacob has suffered tribulations. He had thought that he had lost his beloved son, and had even mourned him as dead. Yet, somehow, he survives these tragedies to be reunited with his Homeland and his beloved son. By Heavenly Grace, he can aspire to a future of health, happiness, and tranquility. He has experienced both aspects of life: pain and suffering as well as joy and serenity.” So what’s up with Jacob?Jacob’s problem is that, like so many of our peers today, he is dwelling upon all the tzuris — all the unhappiness and all his trials and problems. But if we are to draw a lesson from the Midrash, we will learn that this is NOT what God wants for us. Sure, unhappy things that happen to us through life. Sometimes, things are almost unbearably tough, and at other times, it is joyous and beautiful. But, to quote a cliché, time marches on. The World continues to turn, and we with it. We can make our existence painful and sad, or we can say “That was then. This is now.”
I once learned, “There are three things you cannot change. You cannot change other people. You cannot change the past. You cannot change the truth.” Basically, we are left with the interpretation of past events. Even those interpretations may not be valid anymore. But some people get “stuck” in their recollections. When our tradition teaches us that life presents you with joy and with opportunity, it is God’s presence that does it for real! Does refusing to let go affect your health and shorten your life? Without a doubt, YES. You can get stuck in the past, never letting go of the mourning and the regret. It will drag you down. If you keep at it long enough, it can alter the way your mind works and with it, your body chemistry. And yes, it can shorten your life, just as it did Jacob’s.
I genuinely believe that God does not want the example of Jacob’s laboring on negative emotions, to become a model for the Jewish People, who stand, in this portion, on the brink of the most incredible revelations of all times. God knows that one cannot form a prosperous and progressive nation based upon negativity. Indeed, it may never even come together at all, with everyone dwelling in self-pity. Therefore, the Torah and the Midrash record God’s rebuke of Jacob.
In closing, the rabbis teach us, “How important it is that we open our eyes and experience the goodness which God 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!”