And Pharaoh asked Jacob: “How many are the years of your life?” And Jacob replied to Pharaoh: “The years of my sojourning are one hundred and thirty. Few and deficient have been the years of my life, and they have not attained the days of the lives of my fathers…”
Most of us are satisfied with reasonable aspirations: develop your mind, make ends meet, live in peace with your neighbors. But every so often we encounter one of those rare individuals (not a perfectionist, just holy) who cannot relish his meal as long as someone, somewhere, remains hungry; who, if there is ignorance in the world, feels his own wisdom deficient; who, if there is discord anywhere in the universe, cannot be at peace with himself.
Such a man was Jacob. Of the three founding fathers of the Jewish nation, only Jacob’s names (“Jacob” and “Israel”) are synonymous with “The Jewish People.” For Jacob lived not an individual’s life, nor were his an individual’s struggles and aspirations. His earthly life and deeds were but the beginnings of the thirty-five century saga of Israel.
A Request and its Denial
Our sages describe how, after twenty-two years of exile and strife, “Jacob wished to settle in tranquility. But then there descended upon him the trouble of Joseph.” Why, indeed, was his wish denied him? Surely the 99-year-old Jacob, who emerged from all his trials with his righteousness and integrity intact, deserved his yearned-for respite? Does not the Psalmist promise that “[G-d] does the will of those who fear Him”?
But for Jacob, a personal peace was inseparable from a general state of harmony in G-d’s world. What Jacob sought was not some peace and quiet in his individual life, but the ultimate peace: the union of spirit and substance, the infusion of meaning into matter. To Jacob, “settling down” was nothing less than the ultimate redemption through Moshiach.
What Jacob sought was not some peace and quiet in his individual life, but the ultimate peace: the union of spirit and substance, the infusion of meaning into matter.
An initial, immediate granting of Jacob’s request for a struggle-free existence would have resulted in a lesser tranquility, in a harmony more limited in depth and scope than what could be attained only through the painful events of Joseph’s sale and the subsequent exile of the nation of Israel. A peaceful settling down in the Holy Land would be confined to a harmony within Jacob’s most immediate environment; elements outside of this sacred domain would remain excluded, hostile and undeveloped.
Thus, the “trouble of Joseph” that befell Jacob was actually the next step in the realization of the peace he desired. Joseph’s descent into Egypt—the lowliest and most debased of cultures—and his rise from slavery to become ruler and master of the land, enabled Jacob and his family to extend their influence even to this most vile of environments. In a more universal sense, Joseph’s descent into Egypt commenced the Egyptian galut, the prototype and forerunner of all subsequent exiles of Israel. And it is in the arena of galut where Israel’s global-historical calling is realized.
So Jacob, standing before Pharaoh more than five centuries after G-d had set the human lifespan at “one hundred and twenty years,” describes his 130 achievement-filled years as “few and deficient.” Though formidable in number, they are wanting in content, for their efforts still await realization. “They have not attained the days of the lives of my fathers,” said Jacob. My grandfather Abraham “grew old, he came into his days”—at the close of his life his days were full, ripe with the fruit of his labors. Isaac, too, lived a fulfilled life, the life of a “perfect offering.” But unlike my fathers, who closed their cycle of achievement in their physical lifetimes, mine is but an opening chapter in a process that spans history.
Based on an address by the Rebbe, Chanukah 5752.
Adapted from the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe by Yanki Tauber.
. Midrash Rabbah, Bereishit 84:1
. See Rashi on Genesis 33:18.
. Psalms 145:19.
. “The depravity of the land” (Genesis 42:9, et al)
. Genesis 6:3.
. Ibid., 24:1; see Zohar I, 129a.
. Rashi, Genesis 26:2.