hard-won gratitude

Written by  rabbi russ resnik

art-desertjourneyI’d hate to cite one of our patriarchs as a bad example, but at first glance our father Yaakov doesn’t seem to express gratitude when Yosef presents him to Pharaoh. The king asks, “How many are the years of your life?” and Yaakov answers, “The years 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” (Gen. 47:8–9). Gratitude is hikarat ha-tov, recognizing the good, but Yaakov seems to focus on the bad instead.

The context of Yaakov’s statement, however, may help explain his apparent ingratitude. The Egyptians consider 110 years to be the ideal life-span, similar to the Hebrew ideal of 120. Yaakov has already exceeded that by twenty years and needs to be careful not to appear to gloat in the presence of Pharaoh. At the same time, he embraces the stature that his years afford him, as he both enters (47:7) and leaves (47:10) the presence of Pharaoh by blessing him, and “it is beyond dispute that the inferior is blessed by the superior” (Heb. 7:7). Yaakov wisely downplays this superiority by recounting the difficulties of his earthly sojourn.

We see another aspect of gratitude as hikarat ha-tov as we continue in this story, though. The Egyptian peasants strike a deal with Yosef to sell themselves into bondage in exchange for grain, telling Yosef, “You have saved our lives! We are grateful to my lord, and we shall be serfs to Pharaoh” (Gen. 47:25 NJPS). Nahum Sarna comments, “a moral judgment on the situation is subtly introduced into the narrative by shifting the onus of responsibility for the fate of the peasants from Joseph to the Egyptians themselves. The peasants initiate the idea of their own enslavement (v. 19) and [now] express gratitude when it is implemented!” In other words, the Egyptians are too quick to recognize the good in a situation that involves great compromise.

Gratitude, like every middah, must be expressed in balance. “Gratitude out of whack,” as our Riverton Mussar introduction notes, can lead us to “placate or puff up unnecessarily those who have given to us,” and that seems to be the case here.

When the Egyptians say they are “grateful” to Yosef, they literally say, “we have found favor in [your] eyes.” Yaakov uses the same phrase with Yosef a few verses later: “If I have found favor in your eyes, please place your hand under my thigh and act toward me in kindness and truth and please do not bury me in Egypt” (Gen. 47:29; literal translation). The peasants consider it a great favor just to be allowed to survive in Egypt; Yaakov looks ahead to the greater promise of deliverance from Egypt.

Recognizing the good, then, sometimes also requires recognizing the not-so-good. But we still must cultivate gratitude by expressing it for the good that we recognize. In the end Yaakov comes through on that account, and provides the example for us. He says to Yosef, “I never expected to see you again, and here God has let me see your children as well.” Yaakov recognizes that the end of his sojourn, hard though it may have been, reflects the promise and faithfulness of the Almighty.

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