Minutes of Torah
During my recent vacation trip to the other side of the world (literally) visiting my son’s family, I was constantly thinking about where I might like to spend the rest of my life, with the leading candidates being the area that I have called ‘home’ most of my life, or the area where my son’s family was living. And while I certainly could not call an island in Indonesia ‘home’ at this time, I wondered what might be the most compelling characteristics that would define the location where I would like to live for the last part of my life.
I revisited those thoughts in reviewing the portion of the Joseph stories dealing with Jacob’s going down to Egypt after Joseph had reunited with his brothers. Toward the end of last week’s parashat Vayigash, Jacob is brought before Pharaoh by Joseph.
“And Pharaoh said to Jacob, ‘How many are the days of the years of your life?’ And Jacob said to Pharaoh, ‘The days of the years of my sojourning are one hundred thirty years. The days of the years of my life have been few and miserable…’”
In response to a seeming formality, Jacob shares a very revealing, and quite damning, assessment of his entire life. It has all been bad.
Rashi offers a subtle insight into the nature of Jacob’s suffering. He sees an intimation of a perpetual state of exile.
“The years of my sojourning” means the days of my being a stranger. All my days I have been a stranger in other peoples’ lands.
Jacob’s experience thus far — whether due to his exile from his ancestral home after the blessing theft, his maltreatment during his stay with uncle Lavan, his loss of Rachel and then Joseph — was one of being unsettled and an outsider. Like the prototypical stranger, he felt himself to be on the margins of every environment that he inhabited, never fully at home, never fully at rest.
In this week’s parshat Vayechi, the stranger finally finds a way back from alienation, as we see when Jacob is on his deathbed many years later:
And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt for seventeen years, and Jacob’s days, the years of his life, were a hundred and forty-seven years.
Why does Torah need to tell us about Jacob’s years in Egypt — could we not do the subtraction ourselves: Jacob’s age at death less the age when he arrived in Egypt — to reveal that unnecessary detail. Yet, on the doorstep of death, we learn something about this last part of Jacob’s life. During that seventeen years in Egypt — seventeen years of family reunification — Jacob learned how to live, and not simply exist.
Torah could have used the usual litany “And Jacob was in the land of Egypt…” –- a very passive verb; instead of what it does say, which is, “And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt,” — a highly active verb. Commentators see within this word a bursting of life that overtook those many years that sapped Jacob’s life. In the company of his full family, even in a land not his own that became his own, Jacob found the will to give ‘life’ back to his life. He took hold of the years that were left and endowed them with a life filled with renewed energy.
And yet the stranger is in one sense, not the quintessential outsider, but rather the paradigm of the learned insider. The stranger traverses the boundaries of a community — its weakest points. And with this knowledge, they can bolster the strength of the community, as they seek to fully live within it.
This is the “lifefullness,” that Jacob found in Egypt. He consciously became a stranger in a strange land and became the most authentic Jacob of his life. Egypt, too, could be a place for God, as Canaan had been. Instead of alienating him from life, this self-conscious exile became the tool he needed to finally learn how to truly live.
As we are about to enter the book of Exodus with its details of Jewish slavery in Egypt, we ought to consider the possibility that the curse which brought us there, also endowed us with a spiritual charge in perpetuity: to learn how to be strangers so that we, too, might learn to live wherever we might find ourselves. Anywhere in the world. Even in Egypt.
After two years of being a shut-in, I wonder how I might learn to live again. Jacob offers a way back. Cleave to that which is important to the values and ideals in your life. With Jacob it was family. For others it could mean a different vocation or avocation, and for others it might mean a different community or proximity to one. Find the points in your life that give you the greatest opportunity to live your life, to being “full of life,” and not simply “being alive.”
Shabbat Shalom to the aliveness in your lives!
Rav Julius Rabinowitz