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The Meaning of Life

By: Dr. Aviva Goldstein

After coordinating his family’s journey to Egypt, Yosef brings his father Yaakov before Paroh. Yaakov blesses him and Paroh then asks, “How many are the days of the years of your life?”

Yaakov responds, “The days of the years of my sojourning are one hundred thirty years. Few and difficult were the days of the years of my life and they did not reach the days of the years of the lives of my fathers, in the days of their sojourning.”

Yaakov blesses Paroh again, and the encounter ends.

This dialogue is seen by many as perplexing, if not awkward. It’s a dramatic moment, not only as the meeting of two great leaders, but also as an encounter between two vastly different cultures. It’s the only recorded conversation between the monarch of one of the world’s greatest empires and the last of the Patriarchs, whose descendents will outlive this mighty empire and so many others.

And so with that in mind, many are left wondering, “That’s it? That’s all they had to say to each other?? Why is this, their only exchange, about Yaakov’s age?”

Rabbi Shmuel Goldin says that the dialogue is not simple, at all; rather this conversation is the representation of intensely different philosophical approaches to life. This distinction is clear when Yaakov subtly distinguishes between chaim (life) and megurim (sojourning). When Paroh sees likely the oldest man he’s ever encountered, he is essentially asking, “My goodness! How old are you? What is your secret to attaining such longevity, which we so desperately try to pursue??”

Yaakov’s response is where he teaches that lesson about the nuance of life. He is telling this great king, “Don’t be so impressed with my chronological age. Living a long time is not at all the same thing as living well, and with meaning. I have existed, but not necessarily lived, for one hundred thirty years. Don’t envy me. My days of ease and comfort, of peace, have been few and far between.”

In his response to a somewhat awkward question, Yaakov tries to convey his understanding of the value of time. He’s subtly reprimanding Paroh- and the culture he represents- for their empty preoccupation with youth and longevity. Yaakov arrived at this wisdom after years of hardship and struggle, and understands the meaning of the passage of days and years.

We live in a society that places tremendous emphasis on longevity, ease and comfort. People are racing against themselves towards an ambiguous goal of “happiness” without really knowing what that is or how to get there. Many believe that the absence of negative necessarily means the existence of positive, and yet our generation is struggling with anxiety, depression, fraught relationships, shattered self worth, social isolation and existential loneliness in unprecedented numbers. What these racers are missing is the value of struggle, the meaning that can be found in hardship. When we try to rid our lives of challenge, we don’t find happiness. We find emptiness.

Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch writes, “The troubled years of his [Yaakov’s] life, in which the test had to be gone through…were those in which Yaakov won his everlasting national importance.” Comfort and ease are not what typically give meaning to our lives. It is often through struggle and challenge that we learn about ourselves, about perspective and about resilience. Without hardship, we are left without opportunities to learn and grow. If we pay close enough attention to the world in which we exist, we may be blessed with wisdom from which we can grow and actually live.

May we all be zoche to persevere in the face of challenge and to emerge on the other side with perspective, awareness and resilience.

Shabbat Shalom.







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