When Pharaoh asks Ya’akov his age, many are rather surprised by the directness and negativity of the latter’s response – his years were short and bad, and they had not reached those of his fathers (47:9). While technically the only thing he is comparing to his fathers is his years, one gets the sense that the complaint about the badness of his years is also in comparison to them. After all, we have no indication that either Avraham or Yitzchak saw their years as bad.
Yet it is far from clear that Ya’akov had it any harder than his forbears. Being one of the Avot is not for the faint-hearted, and challenges come with the territory. If anything, the singular ordeal of the Akeidah would make just about anyone take Ya’akov’s lot instead of either party to that harrowing ordeal. Moreover, Ya’akov had never had his wife taken away, as was experienced by both Avraham and Yitzchak. Nor did he endure a significant wait once married before having children, which again both Avraham and Yitzchak did. Granted, Ya’akov had his own unique problems. But the very children that were the source of so many of his problems should have also been a great source of pride, given that they had already become a large and solid family, visibly creating the bedrock of the Jewish nation. Hence Ya’akov’s outburst was a subjective one. But why would Ya’akov see things this way?
Maybe it is because the problems and challenges that Avraham and Yitzchak encountered were essentially external. True, Avraham had issues with Sarah’s treatment of Hagar and Yishmael, and Yitzchak had issues with Esav’s wives, but their main challenges came from foreigners such as Avimelech and Pharaoh, or from God Himself. Hence the problems they had to resolve were comfortably not of their making.
Not so with Ya’akov. His issues focused on the nuclear family he grew up in and, even more so, on the nuclear family that he built. He had an uneasy relationship with his brother, which finally exploded when he went along with his mother’s plot to take his father’s blessing for Esav. But this was nothing compared to the troubles in his own household. He was dealt major challenges by Reuven, Shimon, Levi and Dinah. But the most difficult was the rivalry between Yosef and his brothers which would lead to the former’s near-murder. It would also lead to Ya’akov’s lengthy separation from his most beloved son, under the guise that he had been tragically killed in the field. As with his problems with Esav, Ya’akov could not pretend that these issues were totally not of his making. Rabbi S. R. Hirsch explains some of the issues that existed with Ya’akov’s older children resulted from the initial lack of appreciation he had for their mother, Leah. Likewise, Yosef only had his disruptive dreams after his father showed favoritism and gave him the ketonet pasim, an action criticized by the rabbis (Shabbat 10b). Hence most of the problems that occurred to Yaakov he could blame on himself. And it could well be that this is exactly what we are hearing when he expresses his bitterness to Pharaoh.
Of course, the task of creating a large productive and unified family is not simple. And in many ways, Ya’akov ultimately succeeded in doing just that. Given some of the strong personalities in Ya’akov’s household, could more really have been expected from him? Can we really blame Ya’akov for the marital discord and sibling rivalries that are a part of any normal family? If giving the coat to Yosef may have been a mistake in hindsight, who is to say that Yosef’s life may not have been completely stunted, if his father had not provided him with the encouragement that only he needed?
On the one hand, Ya’akov is not so untypical of the tendency of parents to overly blame themselves for traits and choices of their children that have little to do with them. On the other hand, Ya’akov also shows us the need not to be complacent. In the final analysis, he did well. But he also knew that he could have done better. And for him, when there was a possibility to have done better, one can’t simply shrug one’s shoulders and say, “I tried.”
If Ya’akov’s words to Pharaoh were just an exercise in self-mortification about what was too late to change, there would be little to learn from them. But if, as is more likely, they represented part of a strategy of how to continue improving, there is actually a great deal we can learn from them. As while we sometimes need to remind ourselves of our accomplishments and encourage ourselves to keep going, we must also remind ourselves of what we could have done better in order to know where we are going.