Photo Credit: Jewish Press

When Yaakov and Pharoah meet for the first time, they have a fabulously strange encounter. “And Pharaoh said, how many days are the years of your life?” And Yaakov said to Pharaoh, “The days of the years of my life are 130; the days of the years of my life were short and bad. And they did not reach the days of the years of the lives of my fathers when they lived.”

The entire conversation, brief as it is, is exceptionally strange. Why does Pharaoh want to know how old Yaakov is? Why does Yaakov tell him his life was so bad? And why is this conversation included in the Torah? What shall we learn from it?


Several of the commentators note that Yaakov must look incredibly old, thus inspiring what is otherwise a rather gauche question on the part of Pharah. “Just how did you manage to live this long?” Pharoah seems to want to know, experiencing the kind of impressed disbelief that we all do when we see something unusually difficult and unlikely happen right in front of us.

Yaakov Avinu answers him honestly. In truth, there is no positive secret to his old age. He is not as old as he looks, and his life has not been a pleasant one. Sforno notes that Yaakov uses two different words to mean “life,” and, we note, he reverses their order in describing his life and that of his fathers. When he describes his own life, he says “the years of megurai (my life) are one hundred and thirty; short and bad were the years of the days of chayai (my life).” When he describes the lives of his fathers, he reverses these root words, and says “they did not reach the days of the years of chayei, the life of my fathers, in the days of megureihem, of their lives.”

Thus, the verse should be understood as a comment on two different types of life. Yaakov’s life was defined by the root term of ger. That is to say, his life was the life of a stranger, he felt that everything was temporary, he never got comfortable and lived chayim, a good and full life. The opposite was true for his fathers. They had chayyim, a comfortable feeling of permanence even when they were merely strangers, bimei megureihem.

Yaakov’s life was bitter and difficult. He ran from his brother Esav, was basically enslaved by his uncle and father-in-law Lavan, experienced the rape of his daughter, the death of his beloved Rachel, and then the presumed death of his favorite child. We can not imagine a more difficult lot.

Yaakov’s experiences aged him, so much so that Pharaoh felt the need to know just how old he was. Yet, remarkably, he did not lose his vitality. When Yaakov entered the room to speak with Pharaoh, he blessed him. He did so again when he left.

Usually, when we are in pain, especially in great pain, we are unable to look at others and see what they need or consider how to help them. Instead, we focus on removing our pain and finding comfort again. Sometimes, when we are going through something particularly difficult for a lengthy period of time, we can experience a constant need for relief or escape, so that we lose ourselves in our pain. Yaakov Avinu certainly had every reason to become nothing more than the sum of his pains. Yet, as unfortunate as his life was, he felt that he had much to give, that he could help others and lift them up with his blessing. The fact that he doles out blessings indicates that he felt he had no reason to fixate on his own pains. Instead, he felt fortunate and satisfied enough that he could seek the wellbeing of another.

This is truly incredible. We must imagine that Pharaoh was no longer fixated on Yaakov’s age or interested in how he lived quite so long. Instead, he must have been amazed at the inner strength it takes to be joyful and helpful after so much deep suffering.

We have all known such people. Holocaust survivors, people on their deathbeds, people going through deep crises who find a way to genuinely smile, to feel grateful, to want to be helpful. I cannot claim that I know their secret. All I can say is that it must be worthwhile to spend time with them in case we get a sense of it or in case it rubs off.

With thanks to Joshua B. Feigenbaum for turning my attention to this question.

Share this article on WhatsApp:

Previous articleA Deeper Look At Gematria
Next articleJewish Military Veteran And Former Trump Aide Takes On Congress
Yitzchak Sprung is the Rabbi of United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston (UOSH). Visit our facebook page or to learn about our amazing community. Find Rabbi Sprung’s podcast, the Parsha Pick-Me-Up, wherever podcasts are found.