This week Jacob, the inveterate victim, meets Pharaoh after discovering that Jacob’s favorite son Joseph is not only alive but had become second in power only to Pharaoh in Egypt. (Parashat Vayigash)
Every Jewish parent I know would be thrilled to experience anything close to this, but read the conversation between these two old men:
“Pharaoh asked Jacob, ‘How many are the years of your life?’ And Jacob answered Pharaoh, ‘The years of my sojourn on earth are one hundred and thirty. Few and hard have been the years of my life, nor do they come up to the life-spans of my fathers during their sojourns.” (Genesis 47:8-9).
Poor Jacob! No matter what good might have come to him in his life, he defaults to negativity. The rabbis put these words into God’s mouth in response (B’reishit Rabbah 95):
“God said: ‘I saved you from Esau and Laban. I brought Dinah back to you, as well as Joseph – and you complain that your life has been short and evil? I’ll, therefore, count the words of Pharaoh’s question and add that number to the number of words in your response (33 words total) and then shorten your life by exactly that much so that you’ll not live as long as your father Isaac. [Isaac lived to 180, whereas Jacob lived only to the age of 147 – i.e. 33 years less].”
Jacob’s negativity is surprising given all the good he had experienced in his life including twice encountering God. The first time was in his vision of angels ascending and descending a staircase to heaven at Beth El (Genesis 28) and waking to realize that God had been with him all along and he hadn’t known it. The second was in his struggle with a being described as both divine and human at the River Jabok where he emerged with a new name – Yisrael (Genesis 32).
We might expect more gratitude from Jacob instead of his complaining especially since this conversation with Pharaoh occurred at the reunion of Jacob with his cherished son Joseph.
We all know people like this who see the world as if through a negative prism? Are we those people? Do we put greater emphasis on the half-empty glass or the glass that’s half-full? Are we “Debbie Downers?” (ala SNL)
There are so many examples of people who focus on the negative: parents who pay too much attention to their children’s weaknesses and failings – marriages that dissolve because one or both partners refuse to let go of the breeches, the bad times and flaws of the other – our inability to transcend disappointment, frustration, aggravation, and failure.
In his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey notes that the most well-balanced, positive and proactive people, those who live happily and well with others at work and at home, tend to balance continually four dimensions of their lives; the physical, spiritual, mental, and social/emotional.
As we prepare to conclude the secular year 2018, we might take this time to take stock and make adjustments, to tackle one or more of these four aspects of our lives and thereby improve our lot.
We may need mostly to better care for our bodies, eat the right foods, lose weight, get sufficient rest, keep stress at bay, and exercise more.
Perhaps spiritually we may need to find ways to sense more keenly the Ineffable in life’s mysteries, spend more time in communal prayer or by ourselves in meditation, relish the genius of the great artistic masters, spend more time on our own creative process and in the natural world.
Perhaps we’ve allowed our minds to atrophy and our curiosity to languish by learning little that’s new and stimulating.
Perhaps socially and emotionally we could strive to become more empathic, less self-centered and self-referencing, and to serve others more selflessly without a quid pro quo.
There’s one more area that Covey doesn’t mention specifically but includes the physical and mental and is epidemic in our society – depression, a miserable scourge in the lives of millions. If this is your malady or someone near and dear to you suffers from depression, there is redress. Seeking bio-chemical help from qualified physicians is neither shameful nor a sin. To the contrary, doing so is wise and potentially efficacious in addressing the misery that those suffering from depression feel every day and every hour of the day.
The Midrash notes that Jacob’s negativity shaved years off his life. I would hope that each of us not allow ourselves to follow his example and fall into the same trap.