Rabbi Rami Pavolotzky
Israel Congregation, Costa Rica
Testimony of a Face
In this week’s parashah, we witness the meeting of Joseph with his brothers, and later on with his father Jacob. The short dialogue between Jacob and Pharaoh, when Joseph introduces them, is very interesting. Pharaoh asks Jacob, “How many are the days of the years of thy life?” (Gen. 47:8). And Jacob’s replies, “The days of the years of my sojournings are a hundred and thirty years; few and evil have been the days of the years of my life, and they have not attained unto the days of the years of the life of my fathers in the days of their sojournings” (47:9). This is the only dialogue mentioned by the Torah between Jacob, chief of the small Hebrew clan, and Pharaoh, king of the largest empire of the times.
There are several elements in this dialogue that call the attention of the attentive reader. First of all, we do not understand why Pharaoh asks Jacob only about his age, while to his sons, he asks about their jobs and discusses the life they are likely to develop in
(Gen. 47:1-4). Jacob’s answer is also incomprehensible; before a relatively technical and specific question from Egypt ’s Pharaoh, Jacob delivers an unusual, melancholic and whiny reflection. Jacob seems to speak from the authority granted by age, even before the most powerful man on earth. The need to explain how his years have been, when he was only asked about his age, is odd. Furthermore, neither is it clear why Jacob affirms that he has lived fewer years than his parents, when he didn’t know how many years he had yet to live. Egypt
Nachmanides, the medieval commentator Rambam, is perhaps the one who offers the most appropriate answer to these questions. He says that Jacob appeared to be extremely old, much more than what was considered normal in
. Jacob’s appearance astonishes Pharaoh, and thus he asks him his age. According to Rambam, Jacob realizes Pharaoh’s amazement and so answers by explaining that he actually isn’t as old as he seems, and that in fact, his parents got to be much older than him. The reason he seems so old is because his life has been hard and sad; pain and suffering have caused him that particular look. Egypt
It is interesting to notice that our sages understood well enough the influence that our way of life has on our faces and on our bodies in general. They knew that we have a biologic age, but also a “lived” age (to call it in some way), which is the age we look and feel when we rise up every day.
As our life moves forward, we forge our own age. There are unavoidable circumstances that make us happier or more wretched, healthier or sicker. It is difficult to confront these. But our tradition teaches us that we are the builders of our life, the choosers of our destiny. Jacob lived a great part of his life deceiving and being deceived. When Jacob declares “… few and evil have been the days of the years of my life…”, I can hear the echo of the shortages and suffering that, to some extent, he caused unto others and unto himself.
The wrinkles and gray hair brought to us by the years can decorate our faces, becoming symbols of the blessing of having lived long and fruitful lives. When we live in an honest way, giving the best of ourselves at every moment, hoisting the flags of loyalty, friendship, faith, hope and love each and every day, then our bodies and faces appreciate it, relax, and breathe better. Let us learn from our patriarch Jacob’s life, that may we listen to his subtle advice. Deceptions deceive us; honesty makes us better people.