When Jacob meets Pharaoh for the first time, as we have read in last week’s portion, Pharaoh asks Jacob “How many years have you lived?” to which he responds to with, ““The years of my sojourning are one hundred and thirty; few and unpleasant have been the years of my life, nor have they attained the years that my fathers lived during the days of their sojourning.” In this week’s portion of the Torah we read an interesting description, “Jacob lived in the land of Egypt seventeen years; so the length of Jacob’s life was one hundred and forty-seven years.” It seems that Jacob has a clear distinction between what he considers actual living in comparison of simply sojourning. It is the time of his living that is worthwhile to consider.
As we read, the first portion of Jacob’s life extends over a period of one hundred and thirty years. Most of these years, that did include some years of what he would consider actual living, were not so good, mostly even bad. He is certain about that when he compares that to the life of his father and grandfather, who enjoyed much more of what Jacob defines as living. His perception is that the chronological passage of time to measure life is wrong, and what is important is life that is meaningful and good. He thinks that his life was not lived that way. He lost his beloved wife, Rachel, who died giving birth to Benjamin, he experienced a tough relationship with his elder brother, suffered the rape of his daughter Dina, witnessed the tough relationships between his sons, and more. So when he says that he lived in Egypt for seventeen years, these were good years for him, years of life. The entire family was there, he was respected as the father of Joseph, who was only second to Pharaoh himself.
However, the count of years may keep us puzzled about one thing. The family came to Egypt as famine struck the land. That was supposed to last for seven years of severe famine. Nonetheless, we are talking here of ten years more, years of plenty or at least sufficiency. No explanation is provided why Jacob and the family did not return to Canaan after the famine was over with. After Jacob dies a funeral procession accompanies his remains for burial “in the cave that is in the field of Machpelah”. This is an excellent opportunity to stay in the homeland but this is not to be. After Jacob is laid to rest, “Joseph returned to Egypt, he and his brothers, and all who had gone up with him to bury his father.” In fact the doubt their potential stay in Canaan was already seeded when they left Egypt because not really everyone joined. It is described that apart from Joseph, “all the household of Joseph and his brothers and his father’s household; they left only their little ones and their flocks and their herds in the land of Goshen.” Maybe they would be able to part from their flock and herds but we cannot expect them not to return to their children, their family; and they return.
Speaking to us at the URJ Biennial in Boston, earlier this month, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the URJ, discussed the major centers of the Jewish world today where most Jews live, Israel and north America. Two large and meaningful Jewish centers, practically equal in size that live the Jewish lives in ways that Jews were unable to live for centuries. Rabbi Danny Freelander, president of WUPJ, describes these two centers as weights that are connected by a lifting bar that represents the world Jewry outside of these two major centers. This bar, that may be thin and long, sometimes fragile, is what connects us and allows us to lift both side to new heights.
Today it is possible to live, some of it very good life, full and happy, in any one of these two centers, but also in many of the other places where Jews live at worldwide. It is our goal that people will be able to live such lives that extend to the entire length of their being on earth. For many years, may too many years, much of the responsibility for contributing to such living to happen was outside of Israel and mostly borne by world Jewry. We must realize that this world is quickly changing around us. As more and more Jews live in the State of Israel so does the responsibility of us here increase to allow world Jewry to live Jewish life to the fullest. We must take the responsibility of making these lives meaningful and influential. The project Domim – aLike together with the ministry of diaspora affairs of the Israeli government is just one example of such a relationship that goes both ways, enriching lives on both sides and to which we are committed to as congregations and as a Movement. And maybe, just maybe, we can describe these centers of Jewish life today as Ephraim and Manasseh and in that spirit bless them, “May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh!”
Reuven Marko, 29 December 2017, 12 Tevet, 5778