Imagine a trusted colleague at work with a flawless track record of decision making. If that person brought his father to work one day and ushered him into your office to meet you, what is the first question you would ask him? Put your response on hold as we delve into the most dramatic scene in the entire book of Genesis-and perhaps the entire Tanach (Hebrew Bible) Joseph reveals himself to his brothers. They had misjudged him, sold him as a slave, and told their father that he had been devoured by a wild animal. They never knew what happened to him and now the Viceroy of Egypt, the second most powerful person in the most powerful country in the region, reveals that he is their long-lost brother. Until now, they had experienced harsh negotiations with this Viceroy but now the man they so greatly feared, revealed that he was their loving brother who harbored no ill feelings toward them. They left Egypt and went home (Canaan; i.e. Israel)) to tell their father, Jacob. After the emotional reunion with his lost son of 22 years, both Jacob and Joseph went to meet Pharaoh.
Pharaoh said to Jacob, “How many are the years of your life?” Jacob said to Pharaoh, “I have lived 130 years. Few and bad have been the days of the years of my life, and they have not reached the life spans of my forefathers in the days of their sojourns.” [47:8-9]
The Midrash says that Jacob died prematurely because he complained to Pharaoh. Instead of showing gratitude for having the opportunity to be united with his son and being exuberant that, finally, the family was together, Jacob complained that his life has been bitter and painful. G-d answered, “I saved you from Lavan (Laban) and from Eisav(Esau), and I returned Dina and Joseph to you, and you complain about your difficult life!?” As a consequence, Jacob’s life was shortened thirty-three years, one year for each word he complained to Pharaoh. (Isaac, Jacob’s father, lived 180 years but Jacob passed away when he was 147 years old.) There seems to be a flaw in the calculation; Jacob lost 33 years due to the 33 words (in Hebrew) of complaint but when one counts Jacob’s response to Pharaoh, (s)he will notice that there are only twenty-five words; eight words seem to be missing.
Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz (1902-1979) explains that the eight additional (Hebrew)words are found if we begin counting from Pharaoh’s question (“How many are the years of your life”) at the beginning of the verse. That is, if we add the eight words in Pharaoh’s question to the twenty-five words in Jacobs’s response, the total is 33. Okay, we now have thirty-three words but the obvious question is, if Jacob deserved to be punished for his ungrateful and negative response (twenty-five words), why should he be punished for the eight words in Pharaoh’s question as well?
There is something peculiar and even inappropriate about Pharaohs’ conversation with Jacob. If you met your trusted advisor’s father for the first time, what would your first question be? One’s answer may vary but none of us would open the conversation with the question Pharaoh asked Jacob. Who asks an old person his age when he first meets him for the first time? It is disrespectful and inappropriate. Why did Pharaoh ask Jacob his age? Jacob must have appeared so ragged and forlorn that Pharaoh was astonished at seeing such an elderly-looking person still alive; he simply couldn’t help but ask how hold he was but Jacob’s challenging life circumstances were not an excuse for his looking the way he did. He is taken to task for his attitude; as great as he was, Jacob he had no right to present himself in a way that caused him to appear so ancient. He was punished for Pharaoh’s question because it was his bitter appearance that indirectly prompted the question in the first place.
In the mid-19th century, Rabbi Yisrael Salanter (1803-1883) founded the Mussar movement, a program that stressed character development and self-awareness. A person once came to shul with a look of unhappiness and discontent on his face. Rabbi Salanter commented that in Jewish law if someone digs a hole in a public place, he is responsible for damages if a person or animal falls in. He told the man, “your face is like a public place because every sees it. When you walk in with such an unhappy look, you bring down the mood of the people around you and in that sense, you are like one who places a hazard (like digging a hole) in a public place.”
Some people might object to this story because they say, “if that is how I feel, why should I hide it? If that is my natural state and the people around me have a tough time with it, that is their problem.” But is that really the case? When you wake up in the morning with morning breath, do you go into the office with that foul smell or do you brush your teeth, use mouthwash or something else to remove what’s natural? After a sweaty workout or hot yoga session, do you go on a date, interview, or meeting with your natural body odor in order to show the person you are meeting the real, natural you or do you shower with soap first? If someone did show up in his or her natural state we would say the person either does not know (s)he smells or (s)he is so egotistical that (s)he is not considerate of the person or people (s)he is meeting.
Having a dejected look is no different. One’s face is a public thoroughfare; when it presents gloom, it is a sort of spiritual stench that wafts through the air and has the ability to ruin the atmosphere of wherever we are. Although a person might tell himself or herself that it is way I feel now, (s)he demonstrates that (s)he does not care about the people around him or her. However, if at that moment, at the time I am feeling a bit down and out, I can pull myself together, and rather than concentrate on my feelings, concentrate on the people with whom I am about to meet, then I have an opportunity to bring value to the room, rather than gloom; to be a model of how to behave rather than an unpleasant nuisance. I have the opportunity to show that I am in control of myself and can choose to display a happy countenance even when I don’t feel that way. This takes inner strength but it will never come to someone who insists on showing how miserable (s)he is. People with inner peace will take joy and pride in the knowledge that their emotions are indicators, not dictators and be happy to share themselves with the people in their lives.
How we present ourselves to others is a choice. May we all be strong enough to make the choice to show our best selves, even if we are not feeling that way at the moment.
(Daas Zekeinim 47:8; Sichos Mussar, 5731:3)