Jacob And Pharaoh: A Brief Encounter

Jacob and Pharaoh's brief interaction over Jacob's age raises many questions about the complex relationship between the two.

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Our Sages tell us that when Jacob came to Egypt, the land was blessed by his presence and the famine ended. When Pharaoh saw that Jacob was so old, he was afraid that Jacob might not live much longer and that when he died, the blessing might cease. Jacob understood Pharaoh's intention and answered wisely that while he was indeed 130 years old, he was still much younger than his fathers [were when they died], and it was the troubles he had experienced that made him look so old (Sha-agat Aryeh on Genesis 47:9 in Torah Gems, volume 1, p. 332).

[Integrity] is the accrued assurance of [one's] proclivity for order and meaning--an experience that conveys some world order and spiritual sense, no matter how dearly it is paid for. It is the acceptance of one's one and only life cycle as something that had to be, and that, by necessity, permitted no substitutions; it thus means a new, a different love of one's parents. The lack or loss of this accrued ego integration is signified by the fear of death: the one and only life cycle is not accepted as the ultimate of life. Despair expresses the feeling that the time is now short, too short for the attempt to start another life and to try out alternate roads to integrity (Erik Erikson, The Eight Ages of Man, in which he characterizes the final stage of life as a struggle between "ego integrity and despair").

Do not go gentle into that good night, / Old age should burn and rave at close of day; / Rage, rage against the dying of the light (Dylan Thomas, "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night").

One can only imagine that Pharaoh, who was accustomed to being viewed as a god, was brought uncomfortably close to being reminded that he, too, was of flesh. Surely Jacob would have been able to read on Pharaoh's face the desire for him to quickly exit from this audience, and so he lets Pharaoh off the hook by blessing him and leaving. Thus ends Israel's first and only meeting with Egypt on an equal footing. From then on, the House of Israel would look upon Egypt only from a high station or from a low station--or glancing backward from the road as it flees toward its own Land (Joel Rosenberg, "Alternate Paths to Integrity: On Old Age in the Hebrew Bible" in A Heart of Wisdom, edited by Susan Berrin).

Og [Pharaoh's servant] would not believe his own eyes; he thought Abraham was standing before him, so close was the resemblance between Jacob and his progenitor. [The midrash assumes that this is the same Pharaoh whom Abraham encountered in Genesis 12.] Then Pharaoh asked about Jacob's age, to find out whether he actually was Jacob and not Abraham (Midrash HaGadol I, 692-3, as cited in Louis Ginzberg's The Legends of the Jews, volume 2, page 123).

On seeing kings of Israel, one says: "Blessed be the One who has imparted glory to those that fear God." On seeing non-Jewish kings, one says: "Blessed be the One who has imparted glory to God's creatures" (Talmud, B'rachot 58a).

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Rabbi Pamela Wax

Rabbi Pamela Wax is the assistant director of the URJ Department of Adult Jewish Growth.