Good, Bad, and How We Experience Them

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat VaYigash: Four Commentators

The words and overall pessimism of Ya’akov’s response to Par’oh’s query about his age (more literally, how many are the years of his life), 47;9, troubles HaKetav VeHaKabbalah. First, the words. Ya’akov seems to say he has lived 130 years, calling them days of the years of megurai, usually translated as my wanderings. He characterizes them me’at ve-ra’im, few and ill/bad, and did not reach the years of his fathers’ lives. R. Mecklenburg will take apart many of these words to arrive at a religiously more profound reading.

Bad Years Aren’t Living

He starts with perhaps his weakest claim. I think because of the redundancy in yemei shenei chayyai, the days of the years of your life, he says those are only the stress-free years, ones without worry about food or enemies or any other threats. Any years with such problems do not count as years of life. (I did not find the  statement of Chazal he cites to support his idea; a parallel source named Yoma 71a, but that did not seem to say what he is saying here.)

[Before we see what else he has to say, I think this claim worth considering on its own. Do we think that years of troubles are not years of life? Many people say, in retrospect, years of trouble turned out to be building blocks for years of happiness, or the challenges in the years of trouble refined their characters in positive ways. It seems odd to think they do not count as years of life, even if we would not necessarily be thrilled about them as they are ongoing.

He also seems to think Avraham and Yitzchak had less stress in their lives. Perhaps he assumes that all the years of their we do not hear about—many more than of Ya’akov’s life– were ones with nothing remarkable, no challenges to live through or overcomes..

We are about to see where he goes on to,  but he does not step back from this contention, which I find thought-provoking.]

Bad Can’t Mean Bad

If “days of my life” includes only times without stress or problems, his calling them ra’im cannot mean what the word usually does, bad, ill, or evil. R. Mecklenburg instead notes the root ra also sometimes means scattered, with examples from Yirmiyahu and Yeshayahu. In each case, the Aramaic translation renders a version of ra or ro’a in his desired way, scattered or spread out.

He thinks Ya’akov was saying he had few good days, and the ones he did have weren’t consecutive. People who had lived through twenty years, two of them good, can say at least there were two good ones.  If instead, those twenty years were punctuated by three good days a month, there would be less sense of any good, I think R. Mecklenburg is saying.

[I understand this one better. Consecutive days, months, or years of good are more than the sum of their parts, I take him to mean. Each good day is good, but good days in a row build on what came before, each new day even better because it is part of a good sequence.]

Wanderings and Complainings, Not Quite Right

The sticking point that moves R. Mecklenburg in yet another direction comes when he grapples with the first word Ya’akov used to characterize his life, megurai, sojournings. It implies Ya’akov’s troubles came from his frequent moves from place to place, never settling anywhere. Counters R. Mecklenburg: Ya’akov’s troubles weren’t a function of his not being a citizen of an area, they started with the evil people with whom he had to deal,  Esav, Lavan, Shechem (Dinah’s kidnapper and rapist), and Yosef’s being sold.

[We might argue he was only vulnerable to most of those because he never became a settled citizen anywhere, but R. Mecklenburg does not.]Now, he also steps back to critique Ya’akov’s pessimism. The righteous, says HaKetav VeHaKabbalah, take joy/comfort in their sufferings (I think because they provide atonement for other failings, and challenge the righteous person to grow), and certainly do not ruminate over them, do not put them in the forefront of their consciousness or speech.

Having arrived here, he also wonders why the Torah reports the conversation; were this all it means, what value does it for us, the readers?

[Double assumption alert: he is sure the Torah only includes what is instructive. I think commentators agree, but it is an important lens to apply, and even more important to remind us of what we should not expect to find there, and therefore not draw conclusions based on their absence.

Second, his interpretation has shaped the conversation such that it lacks instruction. Theoretically, the Torah could have told us this to teach us to be realistic about our life stories, not to elide or hide the bad, pretend everything was good when it was not. But he goes in his own interesting direction.]

The Less Valuable Struggle of Religion

The key of his new reading is megurai, wanderings, which he now argues can mean battles; in Talmudic Aramaic, tagra often means war or fights, Eichah 2 has megurai to mean enemies who will engage me in battle, and Mechilta de-bei R. Yishma’el thought Shemot 26;1, where Hashem refers to the promise to give the Patriarchs the land of megureihem, meant the land where they worried about war and attackers.

For Ya’akov’s battles, R. Mecklenburg turns to spiritual war. He distinguishes between those for whom adherence to God’s Will is a struggle and those for whom it is natural and unthinking. (I hope my use of a food metaphor doesn’t say too much about me, but imagine a Jew who thinks cheeseburgers look delicious and spends his/her life working not to yield to that temptation, as opposed to the Jew who has no problem with it. I think R. Mecklenburg means this latter Jew has shaped his/her character and desires to erase any temptation for what God has made clear we should not want.)

Everyone agrees (other than Rambam in the Introduction to Avot, he says, a side comment we could also spend time on, but not here) the latter Jew is better, has reached a higher plane. And is called truly alive, says R. Mecklenburg, a daring leap. Only when we are working on all cylinders towards the life God laid out for us are we actually living. The years of struggle, of overcoming, that’s all a stage to get over, by, or through, so we can start actually living.

Ya’akov’s father and grandfather lived that way, he is telling Par’oh, but he has not been so successful. Except R. Mecklenburg cannot accept that, since Ya’akov is known as bechir ha-avot, the choicest of the Patriarchs (another digression I am restraining myself from addressing). He must have been at this higher level, and was just being modest for Par’oh.

A remarkable enough comment for me to give it more space than I usually do: because of his certainty Ya’akov wouldn’t complain about the struggles of his physical life, certainly wouldn’t attribute them to his wanderings, and wouldn’t focus on the negative, he came to the fruitfully challenging ideas that 1) only good days are days of life, 2) good days are better if they are put together in groups, and then the real whopper, 3) the days when we are not beset by our temptations are the days of true life.

When There’s Room to Mourn

Like Rashi, R. Samson Raphael Hirsch picks up on Yosef crying when he saw Ya’akov, Ya’akov seemingly not, 46;29. Rashi quoted Chazal, Ya’akov was saying Shema, a comment that has been explained in various ways. R. Hirsch goes a different way, points out their divergent experiences of the past twenty-two years might have shaped their actions in this moment.

Ya’akov’s years were dominated by awareness of his missing son. In R. Hirsch’s view, that was close to all Ya’akov thought about, probably with the downside that his life basically stopped. The upside is that when he finally sees Yosef, there is no sadness to exhume, only the joy of the reunion.

Yosef’ had spent those same years distracted by life, unable to stop to process what had happened, or his yearnings for his father. He was sold into slavery, had to find his way in a new household, thrown in jail, made Par’oh’s viceroy, had to oversee the gathering of grain and then its sale. A busy, successful man, he had never really stopped to consider what had been going on for him.

It all came out on his father’s shoulders. Suppressing trauma can be adaptive, push us to other success, but also maladaptive. R. Hirsch sees our moment as one where father and son’s approaches to the past shaped their experiences of this moment, just joy or the relief of ridding oneself of the past.

No Regrets

Yosef urged his brothers not to be upset about their role, 45;8. Malbim’s reading of his comfort again raises questions I could imagine answering in other ways. Malbim spots two ways Yosef wants to help them avert sadness. First, they might rue their actions, their sale of their brother.  No need, since they could all now see it was Providence, Hashem wanted this outcome and manipulated them into doing it. To the extent they were tools in God’s Hands, they bore no responsibility.

[Malbim seems to think Yosef was sincere. If so, it seems to mean God has taken over their free will since VaYeshev, to bring the conclusions God wants. Certainly, Jewish tradition thinks Hashem can do that; I am just not as sure we read this section of the Torah to mean Hashem did do that.

After all, we credit Reuven somewhat and Yehudah more for saving Yosef and getting Binyamin to Egypt. Were this all just a puppet show by Hashem, it is not clear to me why we would assign anything to them.]

It’s Embarrassing to be a Tool for the Bad

They still had room to be ashamed of having been chosen as the vehicle for Yosef’s sufferings. He reassures them on this count, too, says it was overall a favor, put him on a path to the power he currently wielded. Malbim gives the example of one person pushing another into the sea to drown, but the person is saved and finds a great jewel. Turned out good [unwittingly, that’s a bit of a rebuttal to HaKetav VeHaKabbalah, because difficult years that produce a good end are, for Malbim, good, where R. Mecklenburg did not seem to think so].

What’s good, what’s bad, and how we internalize or process it, in our three commentators for VaYigash.

About Gidon Rothstein

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