Parashat Vayigash - When Yaakov met Pharaoh: The Cautionary Tale Continues

"So far as I have seen, those who plow trouble and sow struggle will harvest those." Job 4:8

Yaakov, through the course of his life, experiences incredible happenings and unbelievable success alongside repeated hardship. And in many ways, those hardships were reflective of the same hardships he caused for others along the way. The tragic nature of his story is beautifully subtle even as the tragedies which befall him are explicit. In Yaakov's story, there is a reciprocity which follows him through the travails of his life - the things which his own actions wrought for others are returned to him. He deceives his father, Yitzhak, taking advantage of his blindness; Lavan deceives Yaakov by concealing his daughter Leah under veil. Yaakov acquires the legal birthright from his brother under questionable circumstances, Yaakov's firstborn has a physical relationship with his concubine, Bilhah. Yaakov acquired his wealth from Lavan using questionable means, Yaakov lost his prized possession - his son Yosef - through the greed and spite of his other sons. These are just a few examples, and the fact remains that every one of the deceptions that Yaakov engages in throughout his life will come back to be waged against him in some way. His name itself, Yaakov, implies "one who deceives," and this is why it is so significant that he has the opportunity to have a different name. Interestingly, when most figures in Torah have their names changed (Avram becomes Avraham, Sarai becomes Sarah, Yeshua becomes Yehoshua) their names are changed forever, but for Yaakov having his name changed to Yisrael, the Torah continues to refer to him by both names, even sometimes in the same verse.

As we experience challenges and hardships in our life, hopefully we learn through these experiences. We become more willing and able to be held accountable to our own actions and to take responsibility for our actions. As we age and mature, we ideally accept more and more that we are responsible for our own emotions and how we respond or react to our emotions. This is part of positive character development and personal spiritual growth. It is worth noting that most figures in Torah exhibit no character development at all - Avraham is very much the same unquestioning loyal subject at the end of his story as he was at the beginning. Yaakov, however, is the most notable example of character development in the Torah. And how does he develop and change through the course of his life experience? He has ventured and traveled far and wide, he has been the recipient of incredible wealth, prestige, and honor. He has a huge family of thirteen children. He has had direct, intimate encounters with the divine. He has had an absolutely incredible life. And yet, when he meets the most powerful person in the most powerful empire in the world (in and of itself an incredible life experience), and he is asked how old he is, Yaakov tells Pharaoh (Gen. 47:9):

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יַעֲקֹב֙ אֶל־פַּרְעֹ֔ה יְמֵי֙ שְׁנֵ֣י מְגוּרַ֔י שְׁלֹשִׁ֥ים וּמְאַ֖ת שָׁנָ֑ה מְעַ֣ט וְרָעִ֗ים הָיוּ֙ יְמֵי֙ שְׁנֵ֣י חַיַּ֔י וְלֹ֣א הִשִּׂ֗יגוּ אֶת־יְמֵי֙ שְׁנֵי֙ חַיֵּ֣י אֲבֹתַ֔י בִּימֵ֖י מְגוּרֵיהֶֽם׃
Yaakov said to Pharaoh: The days of the years of my temporary years are thirty and a hundred; few and bitter have been the days of the years of my life, and I have not reached the days of the years of the lives of my ancestors in their temporary days

The heartbreak, pain, and brokenness is palpable. Here is a wealthy man of power and prestige holding audience with the most powerful ruler on the planet, and all he can express is sorrow. Yaakov has truly succumbed to his own brokenness.

This narrative, in my opinion, is in the Torah to influence the reader (or listener) in another direction. Challenges are an inevitable part of growth and development. Suffering is an inescapable part of being a human and living a life. It is not in our power to escape suffering, it is, however, completely within our power to determine how we will respond to suffering. Yaakov's story is a cautionary tale for us to inspire a more balanced, healthier relationship with our own struggles, challenges and failures. Will we allow for our pain to isolate us from our loved ones and communities, or will we allow for ourselves to seek healing with those who can offer it for us? Will we allow for our pain to cut off our empathy and create a selfish disposition, or will we transform that pain into compassion for others and pursue equity with our actions? Will we allow for our pain to give us a sense of exceptionalism and entitlement, or will be be inspired by life's lessons to mitigate and minimize pain for others? These are all choices, and the Torah seems to be telling us: here is what Yaakov chose, and he ended his life bitter and alone; do not be like Yaakov, rather count your blessings and learn from your failures so your struggle will not have been in vain.

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