“Parsha and Purpose” – Vayigash 5782
Rabbi Kenneth Brander’s weekly insights into the parsha
“Transforming Struggles Into Triumphs”
Parshat Vayigash (Genesis 44:18-47:27)
“Transforming Struggles Into Triumphs“
In this week’s parsha, Yosef and Yaakov embrace, and Yosef introduces his father, the patriarch of the family, to the most powerful person in the world, to Pharaoh.
And Pharoah is greeting the father of the savior of Egypt, and he asks him:
כמה ימי שני חייך
How old are you? [Genesis 47:8]
And Yaakov gives a protracted answer:
ימי שני מגורי שלשים ומאת שנה מעט ורעים היו
I am one hundred and thirty years old,
but know, Pharaoh, they’ve been challenging years.
ולא השיגו את ימי שני חיי אבותיי בימי מגוריהם
And I have not lived up to the years that my father and grandfather lived up to.
The Ramban asks: Why does Yaakov have to complain about God? And in fact, multiple midrashim in multiple locations really suggest that because Yaakov basically complained about God, he’s punished for these additional words. [Da’at Zekenim, citing the Midrash on Genesis 47:8; Midrash, Genesis Rabba 95 (Albeck Edition)]
And, you know, we can understand what Yaakov is saying. After all, Yaakov has an extremely challenging life. Yet Chazal tell us that sometimes from our patriarchs we learn what not to do. And to complain even when there are challenges is not something we are to do.
And therefore, the Ramban questions him, and the Midrash suggests he’s punished.
I am indebted to Rabbi Dr. Dov Lerner of the Young Israel of Jamaica Estates and Yeshiva University for sharing with us the commentary of the Malbim on this verse.
The Malbim, who himself, like Yaakov, went through many challenges throughout his life and therefore really understands how to look at this verse. I mean, the Malbim lost his father at a very young age, he witnessed the breakup of his first marriage, he lost many of his children and watched the mental deterioration of his second wife.
The Malbim interprets this verse, this exchange between Yaakov and Pharaoh in a different fashion.
In his significant commentary on Chumash, he says: You want to know the days of my years, Pharaoh? I’ve lived on this earth one hundred and thirty years, but the years in which I’ve been able to fulfill my potential as a human being in this world, my destiny, have been limited because of my challenges.
Yet, I have struggled to make sure that I can always achieve my greatness despite my challenges. Because ultimately we are not judged by the years we live in this world, but what we have done, even when there are obstacles in the way.
The trick is not only to live, it’s not only to breathe and occupy space in this world, but it’s the ability to live with moments that matter, despite the challenges. The ability for us to create a destiny and be an aspiration, even when there are obstacles.
In my life, I’ve seen this with my father, he should live and be well.
A survivor of cancer twice, experienced the challenges of COVID, a hidden child in the Holocaust, I’ve never heard him complain. He’s not defined by the struggles, but perhaps has used them as a launching pad to fulfill his destiny.
And I witnessed this with the people I have the privilege of working with at Ohr Torah Stone. Despite the fact that, unfortunately, way too many of them have dealt with the challenges of terrorism, they live lives of happiness, lives that are not defined by their challenges, but rather lives that are aspirational.
Ultimately, the next verse really defines it, because at that point, Pharaoh asks him [Yaakov] to bless him, and we’re told:
ויברך יעקב את פרעה
Yaakov blesses Pharaoh. [Genesis 47:10]
Ultimately, it is people who have obstacles in their way but are able to overcome them, that are really the people who are blessings to us. They are blessings because they show us how to live our lives, not just occupying space in this world, but living lives of purpose and meaning.