A recurring theme throughout the last few Parshiyot of Sefer BeReishit is Ya’akov’s fruitless search for calm after the hectic first several decades of his life. As has been written about in Kol Torah over the past few weeks, in the beginning of Parashat VaYeishev, Rashi comments (BeReishit 37:2, s.v. Eileh Toledot Ya’akov) that once Ya’akov wishes to live in tranquility, the tumultuous ordeal of Yosef sets upon him. In Parashat VaYigash, though, the ordeal appears to be over. Yosef sends for his father after twenty-two years of being apart, and father and son are finally reunited. This period of extreme pain and longing for his son has a profound impact on the now-embittered Ya’akov, but does not affect his incredible devotion to Hashem.
Ya’akov’s initial reaction after he hears of Yosef’s life and prosperity in Mitzrayim is understandable: “VaYafog Libo Ki Lo He’emin Lahem,” “And his heart turned (or fainted), for he did not believe them” (45:26). Why would Ya’akov be ready to assume that a dead man had been revived? After all, no one would blame a heartbroken father for not believing the unbelievable. However, after Ya’akov is assured of his son’s life, the Pasuk states, “VaTechi Ruach Ya’akov,” “And the spirit of Ya’akov was revived” (45:27). Ya’akov experiences a surge of hope.
Despite this sudden revival, Ya’akov’s experiences in his life of embitterment dictate his first verbal response. He exclaims, “Rav Od Yosef Beni Chai Eilechah VeEr’enu BeTerem Amut,” “‘Rav,’ my son Yosef lives. I shall go and see him before I die” (45:28). The word “Rav” used here is an odd choice. Nearly every time the word is used in the Torah as a standalone word, not as an adjective, the speaker is discussing an unfavorable occurrence. Notable examples include “Rav Lachem,” “You have too much [power],” (BeMidbar 16:3), an accusation Korach and his followers hurl at Moshe and Aharon, and “VeNafal Mimenu Rav,” “And many shall fall from [Bnei Yisrael]” (Shemot 19:21), a warning for the Jews to stay away from Har Sinai. Why would Ya’akov choose such a loaded word with negative connotations?
Rashi (BeReishit 45:8, s.v. Rav Od) understands the word “Rav” to refer to the abundance of joy Ya’akov experiences at the time. He interprets the word as a description of happiness. However, Seforno (ad. loc. s.v. Rav Eilechah VeEr’enu) offers an explanation perhaps more in line with the way the term is used in the Pasuk. He implies that Ya’akov’s attitude in this Pasuk is mostly negative. Based off the second part of the Pasuk, Seforno notes that Ya’akov agrees to go down to Mitzrayim to see his son, but not to live there. Why would Ya’akov suddenly focus on future plans? His son has essentially been revived from the dead! This interpretation of Seforno, though, may lend the key to understanding Ya’akov’s changed worldview. After his difficult experiences, Ya’akov is unable to be fully optimistic about the situation. Instead, he notes the negative parts, because in his life, only further travails can result from a positive situation.
Nonetheless, Ya’akov is able to turn to Hashem from his troubles. When Ya’akov leaves, he makes a stop in Be’er Sheva to offer Korbanot. Ya’akov acknowledges that his life has been difficult, but simultaneously recognizes that Hashem’s hand is behind it all. While, indeed, his fears may come true, and while he may have to move down to Mitzrayim, he is mindful and even grateful for Hashem’s influence over the situation.
This same theme – personal pessimism but devoted religiosity – famously manifests itself in Ya’akov’s long awaited meeting with his son. The Pesukim describing the pair’s reuniting are very telling. “VaYa’al LiKrat Yisrael Aviv Goshnah VaYeira Eilav VaYipol Al Tzavarav VaYeivk Al Tzavarav Od. VaYomer Yisrael El Yosef Amutah HaPa’am Acharei Re’oti Et Panecha Ki Odecha Chai,” “And [Yosef] went up to meet Yisrael, his father, to Goshen, and he appeared to him, and he fell on his neck, and cried on his neck a while. And Yisrael said to Yosef, ‘I can die now, after I have seen your face, that you are still alive” (BeReishit 46:29-30). Yosef, upon seeing his father, reacts with unbridled joy. Throughout his travails, Yosef is presented as the optimistic one. He is the one who notes the sweet spices on board the caravan that transports him to slavery. Therefore, he is the emotive one in this meeting. Ya’akov, on the other hand, remains curiously sullen. He does not exchange in the crying or hugging, and makes a somewhat morbid reference to his death. This fits perfectly with Ya’akov’s bitter personality. However, Rashi (ad. loc. s.v. VaYeivk Al Tzavarav Od), quoting Chazal, elevates his silence into devotion: he is reciting Keriat Shema while his son is hugging him. At the time that could have been his greatest joy, Ya’akov is unable to express his happiness. Instead, he directs his emotions heavenward. He is determined to maintain his rock-solid faith, no matter what might come in the future.
Ya’akov’s frustration fully emerges, no longer quietly, in his meeting with Par’oh. When Ya’akov meets with the ruler of Egypt, Par’oh, who, according to many commentators, is shocked at his incredibly old and worn appearance, Par’oh asks how old his visitor is. In response, Ya’akov tells him, “Yemei SheNei Megurai Sheloshim UMe’at Shanah Me’at VeRa’im Hayu Yemei Shenei Chayai VeLo Hisigu Et Yemei Shenei Chayei Avotai BiYmei Megureihem,” “The days of the years of my sojourns have been a hundred and thirty years; few and bad have been the days of the years of my life, and they have not reached the days of the years of the lives of my forefathers in the days of their sojourns” (47:9). With that, Ya’akov regales Par’oh with a blessing, as he does prior to their meeting, and departs. The Mefarshim analyze this point, and the clear gist emerges, as it does from the Peshat of the Pasuk, that Ya’akov is deeply frustrated with his life. Constant, unprecedented challenges lay in wait for him at every turn.
However, Seforno comments that while Ya’akov blesses Par’oh at the beginning and end of the conversation, he never bows to him. Ya’akov knows that expressing these sentiments to Par’oh is ultimately pointless. His full devotion, even during this conversation, is to Hashem.
The manner in which Ya’akov deals with his suffering can serve as an example for Jews dealing with trying circumstances throughout history. Rabbi Yehuda Chanales of TABC, in his Shi’urim on Megillat Eichah, stresses that despite the Mekonein, the lamenter’s, impassioned cries over the destruction that has befallen the Jews, he never actually blames Hashem for human, individual tragedies. He recognizes that God is behind all the tragedies, but does not leap to any conclusions, such as that Hashem has abandoned the Jews. He maintains his faith in Hashem’s continued vision for the Jews.
While many of us, God willing, will never have to deal with challenges on the intense personal scale of Ya’akov or on the national scale of the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash, our parents and grandparents certainly have had to. Even when encountered, however, with smaller difficulties, our responsibility is not to block out our emotions. While we can and should try to make the best of challenging times to be able to enjoy the positive ones, the most important thing is to fully rely on and believe in Hashem’s plan for the world.