As 2014 comes to a blessed close, our world continues to escalate in brutality, is more politically fragile, religiously challenged, and morally confused than ever before. In times such as these it is worthwhile to consider once again who we are and how we might measure our personal, societal and international well-being. 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 Parashat Vayigash has something to teach us about the importance of our attitude. 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. As they cower before him, he forgives them and makes peace. Then he settles his father Jacob in the land of Goshen.
Pharaoh meets Jacob and one old man asks another: “Jacob – How many are the years of your life?”
“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 manifold blessings. Recognizing Jacob as a kvetch, the Midrash (B’reishit Rabba 95) brings an incredulous God into the conversation:
“Jacob: ‘I saved you from Esau and Laban; I brought Dinah back to you, as well as Joseph, 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 happened to Jacob that he should be so negative at this point in his life? After all, 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 could only complain!
Where was 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 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; people who refuse to see the half-full glass and always negatively spin whatever happens to them; others who refuse to overcome disappointments and predict instead a negative future on the basis of past hardship repeating the familiar cynical refrain regardless of new opportunities that could be very different were they not so stuck in their approach and negative attitude to the world.
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.
Perhaps we have closed our hearts and souls to the experience of mystery, awe and wonder.
Maybe we are intellectually stagnant, our curiosity suppressed and our minds inactive.
Possibly, we’ve become jaded and numb to feeling, focused too much on ourselves without bothering to empathize with others.
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 know today, that some illnesses and even some early deaths can be avoided if we take better care of ourselves in body, mind and soul, and paid more attention to those relationships of meaning and trust that we have with one another.
Robert Louis Stevenson described a successful life this way:
“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, balanced, loving, and peaceful New Year!
[Note: This is an edited d’var Torah that I posted here in December 2011 and in re-reading it, I realized that nothing substantially has changed in the world or in the lives of multitudes in that time – hence, its reprise.]
abby segall said:
thank you. i wish you and your family a peaceful and healthy new year
Glenn L Krinsky said:
Hello from Israel–Miriam, Hannah and I are all visiting Sarah for 10 days. That was a wonderful D’var Torah; thanks for sharing.
Gail Heim said:
This is surely worth repeating, perhaps annually. It reminds me of a question posed in something I read which rings particularly true in view of your words. “Isn’t it interesting how most of us humans focus on how far we have to go instead of how far we have come?”
THANK YOU for reminding me to be grateful and savor that which I have.
Martin Weiner said:
Hi John I loved the way you used the Midrash and your Churchill And Stevenson Quotes Really good D’rash Marty Weiner
Sent from my iPhone
Dear Rav, I would suggest that the crux in the parasha is Pharoah’s question. We would be remiss to dismiss such a question from lips of the most powerful man of his time. The use of the interpretation of “sojourn”, a temporary visit or stay, does more than imply a world to come. We are gifted the understanding of the importance of the after life to those who dwelled in Mitzrayim, the narrow places. Pharoah never is defined as one who accepts Joseph’s God as the one true God. Pharoah’s concept of the after life that would follow the “sojourn” would be very different from Jacob’s. Perhaps Jacob is disappointed in the nature of his life as compared to Pharoah’s. This has the possibility that God is testing Jacob through Pharoah, flaunting the largesse of Egypt in the face of the bedouin and then expecting the “leap of faith” to continue. God inflicted pain into Jacob’s body as he wrestled with the corporal / spiritual. God inflicted the “gift” of Joseph’s dreams and insights in Jacob’s life and the accompanying dischord in Jacob’s tribe. God gave Jacob the grief of the loss of a child before his own death. Perhaps the glass is not empty or full, but just too heavy to carry.