By Rabbi Seymour Rossel
In the portion of Vayigash, Joseph carefully coaches his brothers in preparation to meet the Pharaoh. The outcome of the meeting is positive even though the brothers veer from Joseph’s script. As vizier of Egypt, Joseph was surely practiced in diplomacy. Likely enough, he had also prepped Pharaoh before introducing his brothers. He no doubt realized that the outcomes of important meetings are best arranged privately and in advance.
Far different was the private audition of Pharaoh and Jacob. The Torah simply states that “Joseph then brought his father Jacob and presented him to Pharaoh; and Jacob greeted Pharaoh.” It sounds like Jacob took the lead by “greeting” Pharaoh, but the Hebrew word used is va-y’varech, usually translated as “blessed.” Many commentators say Jacob called God’s blessing down on Pharaoh, but that does not ring true. Jacob is no priestly figure. Scholars now assume the correct translation should be “saluted” or “greeted” — by word or (more likely) by gesture. Indeed, the root of va-y’varech comes from “bending the knee.” Jacob probably genuflected on the way into the meeting out of courtesy or in deference.
There are only three verses concerning the meeting. Pharaoh uses up one verse by asking his only question: “How many are the days of the years of your life?” Here, too, commentators throughout the ages rush to offer explanations of this curious phrase, “days of the years.” Some suggest that, on meeting Jacob, Pharaoh realizes that great personalities measure every day of their lives, not just the years. In the 16th century, Sforno noted that Jacob had already lived longer than the ideal Egyptian lifespan of 110 years and added that Jacob also looked older than he was.
In the second verse, Jacob sidesteps Pharaoh’s question and answers: “The years of my sojourning number 130. Few and hard have been the days of the years of my life, nor are they equal to the longer sojourns of my fathers.” At the age of 130, Jacob may be saying, “I have been chosen and being chosen is a mixed blessing.” And the word he uses for “sojourning” could mean “dwelling,” “adventuring” or even “encountering.” It derives from the root for “wandering.” Still, Jacob answers Pharaoh, even employing Pharaoh’s term “days of the years.”
The third and last verse of this singular summit meet repeats the word va-y’varechand concludes, “Jacob deferred (or gestured) to Pharaoh and left Pharaoh’s presence.” It’s over. All the scholars remark on its brevity.
We may be surprised by Jacob’s bitterness. “Few and hard are the days of the years of my life.” But it turns out that “days of the years” is an idiom that probably just means “complete years” — not counting missing or extra days. At Abraham’s death we are told that the “days of the years” of Abraham were 175. While Joseph waited in prison for Pharaoh’s call, we are told that “two years of days” passed. And Psalm 90 reminds us, “The days of the years of our lives are 70, or, given strength, 80; but the most remarkable of them are trouble and sorrow….” And this sounds much like Jacob protesting that his years were “few and hard.”
Psalm 90 also provides us advice on dealing with “days of years” which are a mixed blessing. It says, “Therefore, teach us to count our days rightly, that we may obtain a wise heart.” This is a message in the exchange of Pharaoh and Jacob. Not age is important, but sojourning; not days of years, but the insight we may acquire by living every day.
Rabbi Seymour Rossel is the author of “Bible Dreams” and “Alone and Wrestling: An Anthology,” available wherever fine books are sold. He is a member of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Dallas.