Parashat Vayechi begins by telling that Yaakov lived for 147 years. A famous passage in the Midrash, cited by numerous commentators (including Da’at Zekeinim, the Riva, the Peirush Ha-Tur and Chizkuni) in Parashat Vayigash (47:9), noted that Yaakov lived thirty-three years fewer than his father, Yitzchak. The Midrash comments that Yaakov died earlier as punishment for complaining about his difficult life when he was brought before Pharaoh.
However, the Ba’al Ha-Turim, commenting to the first verse in Parashat Vayechi, advances a different theory. He attributes Yaakov’s punishment to the curse he declared wishing death upon whoever stole Lavan’s terafim (some sort of religious article) at the time he fled from Lavan’s home. As we read earlier, in Parashat Vayeitzei (31:19), Rachel took Lavan’s terafim with her when she and the family fled, unbeknownst to Yaakov. Lavan pursued Yaakov and angrily reprimanded Yaakov for fleeing and for taking his religious articles. Yaakov replied by pronouncing that whoever committed this act “lo yichyeh” – “shall not live” (31:32). The Ba’al Ha-turim observes that the word “yichyeh” in gematria equals 33, and Yaakov was punished for this utterance by leaving this world thirty-three years before he was to have passed on
We might learn from the Ba’al Ha-turim’s comments the severity of rushing to render judgment and express condemnation. The Midrash, as Rashi (31:19) cites, says that Rachel was motivated by noble intentions, wishing to lead her father away from idolatry. Such intentions might not necessarily justify her act of theft, but it would certainly seem that she was not deserving of death for what she did. Yaakov, however, rushed to pronounce death upon anyone who stole Lavan’s belongings, without considering the possibility that this was done for a noble purpose. The Ba’al Ha-turim, in his harsh criticism of Yaakov’s rash pronouncement, perhaps reminds us of the need to reserve judgment when we hear of or even witness misconduct, rather than immediately condemning the act. So often, the background and details of the incident in question serve to at least mitigate the person’s guilt. Rarely is a wrongful act as simple and straightforward as it seems. Just as Yaakov should not have rushed to pronounce a death sentence upon the one who stole Lavan’s terafim, so must we pause before censuring another person for a perceived act of wrongdoing, and patiently and humbly recognize that there is always more to the story than what at first meets the eye.