When a verse or a section of the Torah seems random, it often becomes the subject of many of the classical biblical commentators. In their words, “It cries out to be interpreted.”
A section like this occurs in this week’s Torah portion of Vayigash. Joseph revealed his true identity to his brothers and they brought down the rest of the family to Egypt to live. Joseph was reunited with his father, and he (Jacob) met the Pharaoh.
The Torah states: “And Pharaoh said to Jacob, ‘How many are the years of your life?’ And Jacob answered Pharaoh, ‘I have lived 130 years. The years of my life have been few and bad, and they have not reached the years of my ancestors’” (Gen. 47:8-9).
We can understand Pharaoh asking a blunt question. After all, he was the king. He could certainly ask anything he wanted. But why would the Torah put in what seems to be “small talk”? And what is the meaning of Jacob’s answer to Pharaoh?
I once heard an interesting answer from a rabbi who was visiting Pittsburgh. He said that in reality, Pharaoh was asking: To what do you attribute your remarkable longevity? Some extraordinary good deeds, or mitzvot? You must have done something special to merit so many years.
And Jacob was answering modestly: Not really. My accomplishments do not measure up to those of my father, Isaac, or my grandfather, Abraham.
Of course, Jacob was really a great man in his own right. He established the 12 tribes of Israel. But this passage was put into the Torah to show us his modesty and as a way to gauge ourselves. As the Talmud puts it, every person should ask him or herself, “When will my actions reach the level of those of my ancestors?”
My father’s yahrzeit was the first day of Chanukah, and I find myself asking that same question. He was a rabbi at George Washington University Hillel in D.C. and did many acts of kindness. Having his example as a goal before me is a source of inspiration and helps me to evaluate my own life’s goals.
Pharaoh’s rude question shows us that we must strive for goodness and aim high in our lives. Shabbat shalom. pjc
Rabbi Eli Seidman is director of pastoral care at the Jewish Association on Aging. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.