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AN AGE OLD QUESTION

by Yoel Spotts    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

And Pharaoh asked Jacob 'How old are you?' (Genesis 47:8)

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And Pharaoh asked Jacob 'How old are you?' (Genesis 47:8)

Imagine the scene: Pharaoh is preparing to meet the renowned father of his right hand man Joseph for the very first time. He has heard so much about this patriarchal figure, and now this great sage stands before him. The tension mounts as all await Pharaoh's opening words. Yet all Pharaoh can manage is an inquiry regarding Jacob's age; surely Pharaoh could have begun with a more appropriate greeting!?

The Rashbam, a leading 12th century commentator, explains that Pharaoh was taken aback by Jacob's unusually aged appearance, and could not help but wonder about its cause. Jacob, discerning Pharaoh's astonishment, responds that although he has not lived all that long, his life has been filled by so many troubles and worries which all have taken their toll on his body, causing the aged appearance.

With this response, Jacob has effectively summarized his life story. Although the other forefathers certainly experienced their share of pain and sorrow, it appears that Jacob endured the most suffering. Even his early life is marked with difficulties as he must struggle with his twin brother Esau, eventually leading to Jacob's hasty departure from his own home. Next he must contend with the scheming con-artist Laban, who takes advantage of Jacob at every turn. Upon finally returning to his homeland, Jacob must deal with the losses of his beloved wife Rachel and later Joseph, his cherished son. We find hardly a moment of respite throughout Jacob's life, only struggle after struggle.

However, despite the hardships, Jacob's life is clearly not devoid of accomplishments. On the contrary, in many respects, it appears that Jacob's achievements surpassed both his father's and grandfather's. The rabbis explain that although Abraham epitomized the attribute of chesed (loving kindness), and Isaac that of din (strict adherence to the will of Hashem), Jacob attained the level of emet (truth) - a perfect synthesis of the two. In addition, while Abraham and Isaac both fathered an unworthy son, every one of Jacob's twelve sons were completely righteous. It is no coincidence that we are called the Children of Israel (Jacob's other name), for it was he who completed the foundation of the Jewish people begun by the other forefathers. At first glance, Jacob's unparalleled success seems almost implausible given his difficult path.

In truth though, Jacob's greatness came not in spite of his struggles, but rather because of them. Jacob learned early on that nothing worthwhile ever comes easy. His hardships forced him to turn inward and invest himself in life. Jacob met his challenges head-on, and by overcoming them, he emerged a more complete and fulfilled person. Rather than allow himself to be crushed by his difficulties, Jacob used them as fuel to propel himself to greatness.

Western society embraces the dream of "living on easy street". Unfortunately, such a location does not exist; life is not easy. The rabbis appropriately describe our mission in life as our avodah (work), for we must labor and toil to achieve the ultimate goal. We tend to delude ourselves into thinking that simply going through the motions, performing the mitzvot by rote, absolves us of our obligation to ourselves and to Hashem. However, such a perfunctory observance of the commandments quickly becomes "easy" and ignores the complexities and confusion of life. Only once we recognize the difficulties inherent in the world and within ourselves can we begin to move forward. Only when we are prepared to stop disregarding our problems and shortcomings and strive to deal with them, are we ready to experience the true "dream world".

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Yoel Spotts, a native Atlantan and graduate of Yeshiva Atlanta, writes from Baltimore.

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