In Parshat Vayigash we read how Yaakov was introduced to Pharaoh. When Pharaoh first sees Yaakov he is amazed to see someone who looks so old. He asks him his age but uses an interesting choice of words. He says, “How many are the days of the years of your life?”
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains the phrase as follows: Pharaoh understood that although people may live to an old age, they may only make productive use of few of their days, since people often fall short of their potential. When Pharaoh sees Yaakov he is actually asking him: How many truly meaningful days have you lived during your long life?
Yaakov gives an interesting response. He states that he had a hard and bitter life, not having experienced the quality of life that his forefathers had experienced. “Few and bad have been the days of the years of my life.” He explained that his forefathers lived under more cheerful conditions and accomplished more during their days.
Incidentally, the rabbis state that Yaakov was punished for responding in such a cynical manner. Even though he had lived through many challenging times, one must appreciate simply being alive. Every day alive is a blessing. As a result of his complaining, a year of life was deducted from his expected life span for every word he used when complaining.
When we drift into a depressed and bitter frame of mind, perhaps we too diminish the quality of our days. We may be “putting in our time” but we may not always be making the most of it. We may have the “years” but not the “days” to show for it. Yaakov had every right to be bitter. His daughter was raped, his children pillaged a community, his son was allegedly killed, he was cheated in marriage and his beloved wife died in childbirth. Yet, he too was admonished for allowing the challenging events he experienced to detract from the quality of the days of his life.
As we live our own lives, we are challenged by the lesson of this short interchange between Pharaoh and Yaakov. We need to ask ourselves the same question: “How many are the days of the years of our lives?” Hopefully, they will be many and meaningful.
By Rabbi Dr. Avi Kuperberg
Rabbi Dr. Avi Kuperberg is a clinical psychologist and an avid motorcyclist. He leads the Summit Avenue Shabbos Gemara shiur and minyan in Fair Lawn, New Jersey.