Vayigash: "It's a Wonderful Life."

According to the 1946 “holiday” classic that airs (“cables?”) on TV this time of year, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”   

But that’s not what Jacob told Pharaoh at their single meeting, briefly recounted at Genesis 47.  This was not the Pharaoh who “knew not Joseph” and enslaved his ancestors.  Nor the Pharaoh upon whom G-d (through Moses) wrought the awful plagues.  This was the earlier Pharaoh who appointed Joseph as Viceroy over Egypt, and then invited Joseph’s entire family to settle in the best areas and live off the fat of the land.  

When Joseph introduced his father to the other most important man in his life, the following discussion ensued:  

Pharaoh said to Jacob, "How many are the days of the years of your life?" Jacob said to Pharaoh, "The days of the years of my sojournings are 130 years. The days of the years of my life have been few and miserable, and they have not reached the days of the years of the lives of my forefathers in the days of their sojournings.” 

How Joseph must have cringed at hearing this!  (No one can embarrass you in public like your parent!) He had brought his father to meet his patron, the most powerful man in the world.  A man who had rescued Jacob’s most beloved son from a dungeon and raised him virtually to the throne.  A man who sent food and gifts that saved Jacob’s entire clan from starvation.  A man who had just welcomed that clan to Egypt and favored them with every possible benefit.

Did Jacob express his humble and heartfelt gratitude?  No.  He answered Pharaoh’s question – How old are you? – kvetched about his life, and left!  Oy! 

As we’ve learned from previous Torah portions, Jacob did indeed have more than his – or anyone’s -- share of tzuris.  He fled for his life from his twin brother, Esau.  He worked seven years for Rachel, only to be tricked into marrying her sister, whereupon he had to work yet another seven years.   Still in fear of his brother’s revenge, he wrestled with an angel and limped for the rest of his life.  His daughter, Dinah, was abducted and raped, causing two of his sons to commit mass murder in revenge.  His sons sold their brother, Joseph, into slavery but lied to Jacob, claiming that he had been torn to shreds by a wild beast.   For decades, Jacob mourned, while his land dried up and the family faced famine.  Can we blame Jacob for describing his life as "miserable?"  

And yet, was this really the narrative of Jacob’s life?  He had a happy and sheltered childhood. No sooner did he flee than he met the love of his life, with whom he spent many years and raised many children. He accumulated great wealth. He built a clan. He was reunited with Joseph, whose accomplishments exponentially topped the expectations of even the most demanding and expectant Jewish parent!  G-d renamed Jacob "Israel" and fulfilled His promise to Jacob’s grandfather through him!  Every Jew for all time would be one of the “Children of Israel” -- his descendants.  Is this not equally, or even more so, the story of Jacob’s life?  

Of course, both these horrors and these many blessings were Jacob’s life.  We do not know why he chose to disregard the latter and characterize his life to Pharaoh as “miserable.”  But we need not follow his example. 

How, if asked, would you evaluate your life so far?  It’s very likely that you’ve had serious tzuris in your life; who can live forty, fifty, sixty or more years without experiencing it?  Health. Finances. Relationships.  The loss of loved ones.  Even so, you’re far luckier than most. You’re alive and able to get around. You have your mind.  You’re not being persecuted for your beliefs, practices, or ethnicity.  You don't live in fear for your life.  No war is raging outside your door.  There’s food in the pantry, one or more cars in the garage, and at least some money in the bank.  G-d willing, you have children and perhaps grandchildren, who are also doing well.  No doubt, you can greatly expand upon this list of blessings.  As can I, thank G-d. Why dwell on the tough times?   

Although Jacob did so in his encounter with Pharaoh, the Torah tells us that before he left, he blessed Pharaoh! What might that blessing have been, given that Pharaoh already possessed all the wealth and material things that anyone could want?  Perhaps Jacob asked that G-d bless Pharaoh with the ability to do something that Jacob could himself not do: appreciate how fortunate he was.  May each of us be blessed with the ability to do so.  

All in all, for whatever our troubles, "It’s a wonderful life!"  May we all try to remember that -- and perhaps answer with that very exclamation (followed by "Baruch Hashem") -- whenever we are asked how we are, and especially when we feel overwhelmed with our woes.  

Shabbat shalom! 

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  • Vayigash: "It's a Wonderful Life."

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