Yaacov and family have arrived in Egypt, uniting the family and bringing untold relief to Yaacov after 17 years of bereavement and depression caused by Yosef’s disappearance. And as a show of courtesy, Yosef brings his father Yaacov to meet Pharaoh. The head of the family meets the head of the country.
Four sentences are devoted to this meeting. It begins with Yaacov blessing Pharaoh and it ends with Yaacov blessing Pharaoh, an issue we will address later. What happens in between is a bit puzzling. “How old are you?” Pharaoh asks Yaacov, not a diplomatic question. Yaacov answers 130 years old. Then he adds: “Few and bad were the years of my life and they did not exceed the years of the lives of my fathers.”
Did anyone ask him? Wasn’t the question a straightforward how old are you? Or perhaps Pharaoh meant “Wow, you look really old. How old are you, anyway?” Or perhaps he wondered if he, a god himself, would ever get to such an age.
So Yaacov answers both questions. Straightforward – he’s 130. Why do I look like hell? Because my years have been hard. They’ve been depressing. They’ve known strife and loss and enmity and deceit and you name it. I should be happy I’m even alive.
Or perhaps Yaacov is simply talking to himself. Yes, I’m 130. A lot of years. Let’s see, 20 years hiding from my brother Esau and contending with Laban who tried to cheat me. Two sons killing off a whole city after my daughter is raped. Losing my beloved wife Rachel. Losing her son, my beloved Yosef and not seeing or hearing from him for 17 years. Fighting for my life and my family. Yes, I’d have to say my life has been hard, and you know what? I packed all that grief into fewer years than my father and grandfather lived!
It’s not written that he gave Pharaoh all the details, though he might have. We don’t know. It doesn’t seem logical that Yosef brought him in to say hello goodbye and then leave. There must have been more.
We know from next week’s parsha that when Yaacov died a whole contingent of dignitaries accompanied the funeral cortege to Canaan. Yaacov was respected in Egypt by the Egyptians and not only by his family. Therefore, Yaacov’s meeting with Pharaoh must have gone beyond the courteous.
Perhaps Yaacov spoke of his troubles. It’s likely he talked of his connection with God, impressing Pharaoh with the importance of the deity in his life. He probably didn’t gossip about what a showoff and papa’s boy Yosef had been as a kid, although Pharaoh may have asked what his viceroy was like when young. One thing was definitely not broached: how Yosef came to be in Egypt. Had Yaacov heard the true story, the happiness generated by meeting Yosef would have been completely transcended by the ugly circumstances that had brought the boy to Egypt in the first place!
It could be that Pharaoh was impressed by Yaacov’s persistence in the face of disaster. It could be that Pharaoh’s position as a god himself made him more amenable to the God-based life of Yaacov. We don’t know.
The meeting begins and ends with Yaacov blessing Pharaoh. According to Professor Assa Kasher, there are two possibilities here: one, that these were courtesy blessings or two, that they were real blessings. As Prof. Kasher points out, if it was a courtesy blessing, then Yaacov was playing the subservient role to the important personage, Pharaoh. If it was a real blessing, then Yaacov was the important personage, giving a divine gift to the king.
I would venture to guess that it was both. When Yaacov entered he gave Pharaoh a token blessing, like any visitor bestowing a gift on his host. The fact that Yaacov gave a second blessing, before he left, may indicate that it was a real one this time. He was impressed by Pharaoh (after all, the king had recognized the greatness of his favorite child, Yosef, and had treated him so well). He was impressed by their conversation, whatever it was. He was grateful to his host for the welcome he and his family had been granted.
Rashi says that Yaacov’s blessing was that the Nile would rise and irrigate Egypt, so that Egypt did not have to depend on rain water. And the midrash adds that after that blessing Pharaoh went to the Nile every morning (as we read in the meetings between Pharaoh and Moshe), and the Nile rose to irrigate the country.
So much packed into so few words. It would have been interesting to know what Yaacov and Pharaoh discussed. We see the good relations that developed between the Egyptians and the Israelites (or Jacobites) of the time and this creates an especially harsh contrast to what happens later. It shows that things change, that the most respectful of friends can devolve into a much less positive relationship without trouble. It’s a lesson that remains true to this day, and we see it all around us.