One of the most meaningful readings I offer at a funeral is by Rabbi Alvin Fine. It begins, “Birth is a beginning, and death a destination, but life is a journey…”
It is an apt metaphor. Each of us over the course of our lives makes stops along the journey of life, spending time with people and then parting ways with them. Every journey and every life is filled with seeing new things, learning lessons, and perhaps realizing all the things we don’t know.
But alas for some people life as a journey is no metaphor.
In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Vayigash, Joseph has become a chief assistant to Pharaoh in Egypt. And he is the architect of a plan to save the country from a famine. After testing his brothers, he reunites with them after over twenty years of estrangement. This has set the stage for Joseph to introduce his aging father Jacob to the Pharaoh. The Pharaoh asks the old man, “How many are the years of your life?”
It is not clear to me whether this is a standard question or whether there is something about Jacob’s countenance that makes him appear especially aged. The commentator Ramban (1194-1270) posits that it is the latter, that Jacob appears to be and is much older than most men in Egypt.
Given that this is their first meeting, and that a good amount of deference is to be shown the king, Jacob gives an unusual response: “The years of my sojourn [on earth] are one hundred and thirty. Few and hard have been the years of my life, nor do they come up to the life spans of my fathers during their sojourns.”
When Jacob speaks of life as a sojourn, is it to be taken metaphorically, as Rabbi Fine clearly intends in his poem? Or is it to be taken literally? All the patriarchs were wanderers, but Jacob much more so than his father and grandfather. He faced more danger and adversity in his wanderings than they did. In fact, it is Jacob’s wanderings that form a starting point from which Jewish history is told. In Deuteronomy 26:5 — in a line excerpted into the Passover Haggadah — someone making a thanksgiving offering to the priest is obligated to say, “My father was a wandering Aramean.” The wandering that later comes to define Jacob’s life has taken its toll on him, for he tells the Pharaoh that he is not as old as his ancestors were (and at this rate does not expect to surpass them).
I think, like Jacob, many people use their parents as their yardstick of their accomplishments in life. Most people consider it a noteworthy accomplishment to live longer than a parent, especially the parent of the same gender. I, for one, reflect that my father was a year younger than I am now when he mourned the death of his mother. In contrast, I am blessed that both my parents are alive and well.
In coming to Egypt, Jacob has found stability. The man whose life is defined by his journeying will stay in one spot for the last 17 years of his life. But his implication to Pharaoh that he will not live as long as his ancestors is proven true. At 147, he lives for a shorter time than his father, grandfather and great grandfather. And, befitting of a man whose life is shaped by his journeys, his body is returned from Egypt to the family’s burial ground in Canaan as part of an elaborate procession.
As I consider Jacob’s life, I wonder about the men and women, and especially the children, who have recently fled their home countries because of war or other dangers. Will this simply be one chapter they tell in the story of their life’s “journey?” Or will this journey and its obstacles come to define their lives? The answer depends in large part on the treatment they receive. If met with kindness, they may well say that the journey ultimately enabled them to be in a safer and better place than their ancestors. If met with coldness or closed doors, they may likely say that their days have been “few and hard” because of the experience.
By the time Vayigash concludes, the unlikely journeys of Jacob, Joseph and the brothers all converge in Egypt. It will be their home for 400 years until the Israelites are destined to wander again. We Jews are heirs to this history. We strive to ensure that for ourselves and for others that “life’s journey” remains a metaphor.