Appel's Parsha Page Parshat Vayigash: Jacob's Elderly Appearance
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Vayigash(Genesis 44:18-47:27)

Jacob's Elderly Appearance

The powerful book "Chassidic Tales of the Holocaust" tells the story of a mother and her daughter, Livia, who somehow managed to survive the war. Looking out for each other, encouraging each other day after horror-filled day, they made it through the terror of several concentration camps.

After the war, a sympathetic German woman looked at Livia and commented, "It must have been very difficult for people your age to endure all this suffering."

"How old do you think I am?" Livia asked her.

"Maybe 60 or 62," replied the woman.

"No. I'm 14," replied Livia.

Terrified upon hearing this, the women crossed herself and fled.

The enormous effect that sorrow can have upon a person's visage figures prominently in this week's Torah portion, Vayigash. In the narrative, the aged patriarch Jacob is brought before Pharaoh and gives him a blessing. Pharaoh then asks Jacob how old he is. Jacob responds: "Few and bad have been the days of the years of my life, and they have not reached the years of the life of my forefathers in the days of their wanderings."

The commentaries note that in fact Jacob did have a miserable life. For decades, he lived in fear that his brother Esav would murder him. Then he spent 20 years working for his wicked uncle Lavan, who constantly cheated him and made him work under the most difficult physical conditions. Then Dina, Jacob's only daughter, was tragically raped. Later, Jacob spent many years in sorrow, convinced that his beloved son Joseph had died.

But, despite going through all this pain (and perhaps in part because of it), Jacob managed to become a great tzaddik. In fact, he worked so hard on improving his character, that many classical sources describe Jacob as "the most righteous person who ever lived."

Given that he had reached such a high level of righteousness, Jacob's comment to Pharaoh about his "life of great difficulty" seems inappropriate. While the average person may complain about life's trials, a tzaddik is not supposed to!

The Midrash goes on to describe God's consternation with Jacob's comment. The Almighty tells Jacob: "I provided you with a refuge from Esav and Lavan, returned to you both Dina and Joseph - and you're complaining?!"

The Midrash concludes that Jacob's life was shortened as a result of these words of complaint. For if Jacob (or anybody else) does not fully appreciate life, then why should he be granted longevity?!

Other commentaries, however, explain the incident with Pharaoh differently. They say that Pharaoh was overwhelmed by the ancient-looking appearance of Jacob, and asked about his age. Jacob, realizing that his appearance made him seem far older than he actually was, felt compelled to explain to Pharaoh the cause of this phenomenon, and described the difficulties he had faced in his life.

Thus, in the view of these commentaries, Jacob's words were not a complaint, but rather an explanation of his appearance. As a great tzaddik, he would not (especially to a public personage such as Pharaoh) utter bitter complaints about his life. Rather, Jacob was explaining how the tragedies of life had become etched on his visage ... just as they would on his great-granddaughter, Livia, some millennia hence.

Published: January 15, 2000

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Visitor Comments: 8

(5) Mordechai, December 19, 2012 4:04 PM

Most of us are satisfied with reasonable aspirations:

Most of us are satisfied with reasonable aspirations: develop your mind, make ends meet, live in peace with your neighbors. But then there are those special individuals who derive no satisfaction from personal achievements. For it is total, universal perfection they seek -- as long as they inhabit a world where evil and want still exist, they perceive their own selves as deficient and wanting. Such a man was Jacob. Of the three founding fathers of the Jewish nation, only Jacob's names ("Jacob" and "Israel") are synonymous with "The Jewish People." For Jacob lived not an individual's life. His earthly life and deeds were but the beginnings of the 35-century mission of Israel to perfect G-d's creation. So Jacob, though he had already surpassed the Divinely-ordained human lifespan of "one hundred and twenty years," describes his 130 achievement-filled years as "few and bad." Though formidable in number, they are wanting in content, for their efforts still await realization. "They have not attained the days of the lives of my fathers," said Jacob. My grandfather Abraham "grew old, he came with his days" -- at the close of his life his days were full, ripe with the fruit of his labors. Isaac, too, lived a fulfilled life, the life of a "perfect offering." But unlike my fathers, who closed a cycle of achievement in their physical lifetimes, mine is but an opening chapter in a process that spans history. (The Lubavitcher Rebbe

(4) Raymond L., December 22, 2009 7:04 AM

At 80, I look 60. Good hard life going to sea helps me stay young looking. A blessing on me. Shalom to all.

I love to read the comments to view the substance of others response!

(3) Binyamin, January 1, 2009 7:55 PM

Hard Life

My dad looks older than he is. When people incorrectly guess his age by shooting too high, he replies jokingly, "I've had a hard life."

(2) margaret beasley, December 16, 2001 12:00 AM

aging patriarchs v. matriarchs

When Sarah was promised her son at age 90 she laughed, saying, Shall I again have pleasure after I have withered? It seems she reveled in her joyous memories, not focusing on the barrenness of her youth. Which of us would say at age 147 our days were few and bad when now so few exceed their 90's? All of us were designed to choose life, at least as long as Adam's span! But of course, stricken with cancer at age 42 I am entitled to chime in with Jacob--if this is all there is.

Anonymous, December 17, 2012 3:19 AM

May you have a quick Refuah Shlayma.

May you have a quick Refuah Shlayma.

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