The Torah in Parashat Vayigash tells of Yaakov’s brief meeting with Pharaoh upon arriving in Egypt. Pharaoh inquired about Yaakov’s age, and Yaakov replied by not only stating his age, but also bemoaning the difficult life he had lived (46:9). The Midrash (cited by Da’at Zekeinim Mi-Ba’alei Ha-Tosafot) famously criticizes Yaakov for this lament, going so far as to say that Yaakov’s life was shortened as punishment for bemoaning his hardships.
Nevertheless, a number of commentators sought to explain the reason why Yaakov did not just simply give his age, and instead proceeded to lament his difficult life. Was this simply an expression of negativity and misery, or was there perhaps some purpose to Yaakov’s lament?
One intriguing theory that has been proposed (by Rav Moshe Mordechai Karp, in his Va-yavinu Ba-mikra) is that Yaakov feared that Pharaoh would appoint him as a personal advisor. Pharaoh may have heard from Yosef about Yaakov’s wisdom, and may therefore have been inclined to capitalize on Yaakov’s skills in running his kingdom by assigning him to an advisory position. Yaakov therefore emphasized to Pharaoh that he himself had endured a difficult life, such that Pharaoh would be unimpressed and disinclined to appoint him to any sort of government post. Yaakov’s purpose was to make Pharaoh believe that he was unsuccessful in securing his own good fortune over the course of his life, and so he certainly could not be trusted with advising Pharaoh on how to secure his kingdom’s good fortune. Just as Yosef had previously instructed his brothers to tell Pharaoh that they worked as shepherds so that – according to many commentators – Pharaoh would not appoint them to royal posts, given the Egyptians’ aversion to shepherding (46:34), similarly, Yaakov sought to appear unimpressive, to avoid being named to a distinguished advisory position.
Yaakov’s interest in avoiding a position in Pharaoh’s palace was certainly understandable, but his response – according to this theory – perhaps offers us some insight into the common, misguided tendency to excuse ourselves from important roles. Like Yaakov, we sometimes point to our past failures as proof of our inadequacy and our unsuitability for tasks that need to be performed. And, just as Yaakov bemoaned the fact that he would not be living as long as his father and grandfather, we similarly tend to compare ourselves to those far greater than us, and thus conclude that we are unworthy and incapable of filling roles for which we are needed. While Yaakov’s efforts to avoid an appointment were certainly justifiable under the circumstances, very often, our excuses are not justified. Before we conclude that we are unsuited or unqualified for an important task, we must carefully determine whether this is indeed the case, or if perhaps we are convincing ourselves of our unworthiness purely for the sake of convenience.