Parashat Vayigash 5779: The Blessing of a Negative Attitude

My wife’s grandmother, Grandma Florence, of blessed memory, had a hard life in many ways, but she maintained a positive attitude. Whenever she would see me, she would say, “You are beautiful!” Then she would often share her life philosophy: “Remember, love makes the world go around.”

Her life-affirming philosophy stands in contrast with Yaakov towards the end of his life. After he is reunited with Yosef and settled in Egypt, he is presented before Pharaoh:

“Yaakov blessed Pharaoh. Pharaoh asked Yaakov, ‘How many are the years of your life?’ And Yaakov answered Pharaoh, ‘The year of my sojourn 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.’ Yaakov blessed Pharaoh and left Pharaoh’s presence.” (Genesis 47:7-10)

Another translation for “hard” is “bad,” which makes his evaluation of the years of his life even more disturbing. Yes, Yaakov experienced many challenges throughout his life, but such a negative evaluation of life is not befitting of one of our patriarchs. Furthermore, he represents our unique covenanted relationship with God as he comes before Pharaoh. What does this negative perspective say about Yaakov’s view of himself and his relationship with God, let alone in the public eye?

It is instructive to contrast Yaakov’s negative attitude with Cain’s after God doesn’t accept his offering. God warns Cain:

“Why are you distressed,

And why is your face fallen?

Surely, if you do right,

There is uplift.

But if you do not do right

Sin couches at the door;

Its urge is toward you,

Yet you can be its master.” (Genesis 4:6-8)

This Divine warning to Cain privileges action. A negative attitude can lead to sinful action. However, the determining factor is not one’s attitude, it is mitigated or even remedied by the actions one takes. Immediately after this warning, Cain rises up to murder Abel. He let his attitude determine his actions. In contrast, we don’t see Yaakov take any negative actions. The manipulative behaviors from his youth are absent. Instead, from his deathbed, he gives blessings, warnings, and instructions to his children and grandchildren.

Perhaps Yaakov is giving a dose of reality to Pharaoh who is implicitly seeking wisdom when he asks this venerated head of the clan his age. Yaakov’s stark words to Pharaoh are an Ecclesiastes type of rebuke: “Don’t think that you can escape death just because you can purchase power and pleasure in life. I have faced directly and withstood the great challenges of life; have you? As a result, I leave the legacy of my family, and the values of my God as I face the reality of death; what are you leaving behind?” This same negativity expressed to Pharaoh can be detected when Yaakov delivers blessings and rebuke to his children from his deathbed. Yet this is an example of how he uses his clear-eyed perspective, even if it’s negative, to ensure the legacy of his family.

With dwindling numbers of affiliated families in in Jewish life and synagogues specifically, there is justification to have a negative outlook. While it is instructive to look at reality with open eyes, the question is what action your attitude spurs you to take. It is the actions of that small group of families whose involvement secures the success of a program and even creates a community. It is those few leaders, like the two spies in the desert, who stand up against the majority culture because they know that their blessed path will succeed despite the challenges.

Let us be like Yaakov, willing to state the negative reality even in the face of the powerful. Then take constructive action to secure the future of our family and our people.