As 2011 comes to a blessed close, our world continues to escalate in its brutality, is more politically fragile, economically distressed, religiously challenged, and morally confused than ever before. In times such as these it is worthwhile for us to consider who we are and how we might measure our personal, societal and international successes and failures. In this I am reminded of Churchill’s words that a successful person will “be… able to go from one failure to the next without losing enthusiasm.”

This week’s Torah portion Vayigash has something to teach us about the importance of attitude in life. In these closing chapters of Genesis we come to the climax of the Joseph narratives. The crown prince meets his brothers after 20 years of exile and reveals himself to them. As they cower he forgives them and makes peace. Finally, he settles his father Jacob in the land of Goshen.

Pharaoh has occasion to meet Jacob in these chapters as well, and one old man asks another: “Jacob – How many are the years of your life?” He responds, “The years of my sojourn on earth are one hundred and thirty. Few and hard have been the years of my life, nor do they come up to the life-spans of my fathers during their sojourns.” (Genesis 47:8-9)

This seems an odd response given Jacob’s life. Recognizing Jacob as a kvetch, the Midrash (B’reishit Rabba 95) brings an incredulous God into the conversation:

“Jacob [says the Eternal]: ‘I saved you from Esau and Laban; I brought [your daughter] Dinah back to you [after she was raped and held captive], as well as Joseph [who you presumed to be dead at the hands of a wild beast] and you complain that your life has been short and evil?’ [If so] I’ll count the words of Pharaoh’s question to you and your response, add them together and shorten your life [by that number of years – 33] so you’ll not live as long as your father Isaac, who lived to 180.’ Jacob lived 147 years.”

What has happened to Jacob? He had 4 wives, 13 children and many grandchildren. His son Joseph had become the second most powerful man in the world and he himself had encountered God twice, in a dream and at a river, but Jacob can only complain!

Where’s the gratitude? That this conversation with Pharaoh should come just after Jacob had been reunited with Joseph, his favorite son, is disheartening and disturbing.

Truth to tell, we all know people like this who see their lives as through a negative prism: Parents who fixate on their children’s weaknesses and failings; marriages that dissolve because one partner won’t let go of past slights, the bad times and the other’s flaws; and our own refusal to overcome disappointments.

In his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey concludes that the most well-balanced, positive and proactive people, who live happily with others at work and home, are successful because they balance four dimensions of their natures; the physical, spiritual, mental, and social/emotional.

We may need to care more for our bodies, eat better food and less of it, drop excess weight, get sufficient rest, keep stress and negativity at bay, and exercise more.

Or maybe spiritually we’re closed to the experience of mystery, awe and wonder.

We may have become intellectually stagnant, our curiosity suppressed and our minds inactive.

Perhaps we’ve become jaded and numb to feeling, focused too much on ourselves and without empathy.

The Midrash surmises that Jacob’s negativity and propensity to complain, despite his many blessings, shaved years from his life. Writing 1500 years ago, the rabbis anticipated what psychiatrists and scientists would conclude today, that some illness and even early death can be avoided if we took better care of ourselves in body, mind and soul and paid more attention to our relationships with each other.

The 19th century writer Robert Louis Stevenson wrote this of a ‘successful life’:

“A person is a success who has lived well, laughed often and loved much; who has gained the respect of intelligent people and the love of children; who has filled his niche and accomplished his/her task; who leaves the world better than s/he found it, whether by an improved poppy, a perfect poem or a rescued soul; who never lacked appreciation of earth’s beauty or failed to express it; who looked for the best in others and gave the best s/he had.”

Wiser words have not been uttered.

Shabbat Shalom and a happy, healthy, meaningful, and balanced New Year!