When Pharaoh first meets Jacob in this week's Torah portion, he begins the conversation with the standard small talk. In good taste, Pharaoh asks simple questions and expects simple answers.
When Pharaoh first meets Jacob in this week's Torah portion, he begins the conversation with the standard small talk. In good taste, Pharaoh asks simple questions and expects simple answers. However, Jacob depresses the festive occasion of his reuniting with Joseph by declaring how his life has been "short and bitter" (Genesis 47:9). Of all times in his life, Jacob should finally see peace and contentment, so why would Jacob characterize his life in such a negative light?
When Jacob describes his life as bitter, he recalls his life with all of its many hardships, recognizing the pain scattered throughout. Jacob only claimed what he saw to be an accurate description. After being compelled to deceive Isaac for the blessing of the Jewish people, his mother sends him away to escape the vengeance of an enraged older brother. He flees from Esau only to find more trouble in Haran. Laban tricks Jacob into serving him for fourteen years before allowing his marriage to Rachel. Worse still, Jacob lives to hear of his "favorite" son being devoured by wild beasts. This final catastrophe silences Jacob until he heads for Egypt to meet his long-thought-dead son when, once again, "the spirit of Jacob was revived" (ibid. 45:27).
If Jacob is simply stating a fact about the quality of his life, a different question must be addressed. Why is this the fact? Jacob was chosen to father the entire Jewish nation. Accordingly, we would think that Hashem would like to take care of the person who will play such a major role in the history of this people and the world. If Hashem did care so much about Jacob, then why was Jacob troubled throughout his life? His brother Esau never sees pain and adversity! Jacob is the beloved and is hurt, while Esau lives a pleasant and carefree life on Mt. Seir. This seems counterintuitive. Jacob deserves the easier life!
Every year at the Passover seder, we discuss this same enigma where Esau receives a present while Jacob is subjected to harder times. The verse in Joshua (24:4) states: "To Esau I gave Mt. Seir to inherit, while Jacob and his children went down to Egypt." Esau inherits a nice piece of land, while Jacob descends to Egypt for years of back-breaking slavery. Of course, Hashem had promised Abraham in their covenant that his descendants would be enslaved for a period of time in a foreign country. But the question still remains: Why would Hashem embitter the life of his entire nation instead of giving them the tranquil inheritance of Mt. Seir?
In truth, the question is flawed in assuming that Hashem expresses His attitude by submitting a person to a difficult life. A painful situation reveals less about Hashem's anger than it does about His concern. Pain can be a form of punishment, but it can also be a challenge. In fact, a parent only punishes a child out of love. The very pain is an expression of how much the parent cares for the well-being and future of the child. When Hashem gives Mt. Seir to Esau as an inheritance, Hashem severs His relationship with Esau. Hashem promised to give Isaac's children an inheritance and, with Mt. Seir, Hashem has fulfilled his obligation to Esau. However, with Jacob, Hashem prolongs the relationship. Hashem can now ignore Esau and pay the painful and intolerable compliment of focusing His attention on Jacob's people. Jacob must meet the challenge of hardship and grow from the experience with an eye towards defining and refining his character.
An analogy once made by a religious philosopher crystallizes the idea. Individually, each person is a divine work of art which Hashem is making and will not be satisfied until it has a certain character. To entertain a child, an artist might sketch a picture. Not much care is invested to capture the exact image on paper for the child to enjoy. However, in producing the masterpiece of his life, the artist will certainly go through endless trouble for the picture. The analogy applies equally on a national level where Hashem is trying to mold the very character of His chosen people.
Pain only shows that Hashem is paying attention. It might be a punishment, it might be a test, but it is not a coincidence. A life with challenges and hardships compels a person to address the issue and rise to the occasion. Pain hurts, adversity strengthens, and Hashem is expecting the best. Hashem has a mission for each individual person and a vision for all of the Jewish people. As His chosen people, we are at the same time both privileged and burdened with the responsibility of justifying and living up to this "intolerable compliment".
In truth, Jacob recognized Hashem's role in every hardship he faced. When fleeing from Esau, Hashem tells Jacob, "I am with you and I will guard you" (Genesis 28:15). Also Hashem commands Jacob in a dream to leave the house of Laban (ibid. 31:11-13). And finally, as Jacob is traveling to Egypt, Hashem promises to create a nation out of Jacob's children and commits to "descend with you to Egypt" (ibid. 46:4). Jacob sees Hashem's intimate involvement in his life at every stage. Although Jacob describes his life as bitter, he is not complaining. He is only testifying Hashem's concern for him.
Micah Gimpel, a native Atlantan and alumnus of Yeshiva Atlanta, writes from Israel.
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