The Torah in Parashat Vayigash tells that Yosef brought his father, Yaakov, to meet Pharaoh after he arrived to live in Egypt to escape the harsh famine conditions in Canaan. When Yaakov came before Pharaoh, the king inquired about his age, and Yaakov replied that he was 130, adding, “The days of the years of my life have been few and bad, and they have not reached the days of the years of the lives of my forefathers” (47:9).
A famous comment in the Midrash, cited by the Tosafists in Da’at Zekeinim, criticizes Yaakov for lamenting his difficult life. The Midrash relates that God said to Yaakov, “I rescued you from Esav and from Lavan, and I returned Dina to you – and you complain about your life?!” Yaakov was severely punished for this complaint, the Midrash concludes, by living thirty-three years less than his father, Yitzchak.
Before citing this Midrashic passage, Da’at Zekeinim offers a different interpretation of this brief exchange between Yaakov and Pharaoh, explaining that Pharaoh asked about Yaakov’s age because he looked exceedingly old. Yaakov therefore informed the king that he was actually not very old (by the standards of that time), but he looked older than his age because of the very difficult life which he had lived. According to this explanation, it seems, Yaakov’s response was perfectly acceptable, as he was simply replying to Pharaoh’s observation about his appearance. It appears that the first approach offered by Da’at Zekeinim understood Yaakov’s response as an accurate answer to Pharaoh’s question, whereas the second understood that Yaakov was unnecessarily complaining about his difficult life, instead of simply answering Pharaoh’s question about his age.
However, Rav Chaim Elazary, in his Mesilot Chayim, suggests that these two approaches presented by Da’at Zekeinim should perhaps be read in conjunction with one another. The criticism of Yaakov expressed by the Midrash, Rav Elazary writes, is applicable even if Yaakov legitimately found it necessary to explain to Pharaoh why he looked so frail and worn. When we tell of the hardships and troubles we’ve endured, it is inappropriate to speak only of our hardships and troubles, without noting as well our blessings and good fortune. Yaakov was perhaps at fault not for mentioning to Pharaoh that he’d suffered hardship, but rather for mentioning only that he’d suffered hardship, without mentioning as well that, for example, God saved him from his brother who plotted to kill him, helped him outmaneuver Lavan, and returned Dina to him after her abduction. It is acceptable to feel pained by, and even to bemoan, our challenges and travails, but only if we also make a point of acknowledging and celebrating our many blessings.
This is true not only on a personal, individual level, but also on a national level. The Torah’s command to forever remember Amalek’s cruel, vicious attack on our ancestors (Devarim 25:17-19) is immediately followed by the command of bikkurim – bringing one’s first fruits to Jerusalem and expressing gratitude to God for the great blessing of Eretz Yisrael. Rav Yehuda Leib Ginsburg, in his Yalkut Yehuda, explains this juxtaposition as instructing that we must not limit our historical awareness to the memory of our past suffering and calamity. Our collective somber reflection on the many painful periods in our history must be counterbalanced by our collective celebration of all the good that God has bestowed upon our nation. Like Yaakov standing before Pharaoh, it is perfectly legitimate to bemoan the tragic persecution that we have endured – but only if we also express joy and appreciation for the countless blessings and privileges that God has granted Am Yisrael over the centuries.