Rabbi Lazer GurkowRabbi Eliezer (Lazer) Gurkow, currently serving as rabbi of congregation Beth Tefilah in London, Ontario, is a well-known speaker and writer on Torah issues and current affairs.
If you have ever seen a Torah Scroll you know that it contains paragraph breaks. Some paragraphs are longer than others, but at the end of the paragraph there is usually a break, especially at the end of a portion. There are very few portions that are not preceded by an open space in the Torah scroll. The portion we read today, the last one in Genesis, is one of them.
Noting the uninterrupted script that leads from the previous portion directly into this one, the famed Torah commentator, Rashi, made the following comment. “Why is this section [completely] closed? Because, as soon as our father Jacob passed away, the eyes and the heart of Israel were “closed,” (i.e., it became “dark” for them) because of the misery of the slavery, for they (the Egyptians) commenced to subjugate them.”
The way Rashi saw it every anomaly in the Torah is instructive. If the break is missing there is a reason. Yet when we examine the particular lesson that Rashi drew from the missing break we wonder about the connection. The words with which this portion begins are “And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt for seventeen years,” but the subjugation of the Jews in Egypt began only after Jacob’s passing. Does this point not belong later in the text when Jacob’s passing is recounted?
The question becomes even more remarkable when we consider the teaching of our sages that the best years of Jacob’s life were the last seventeen years that he spent in Egypt. The Torah portion begins with a description of Jacob’s best years, yet Rashi would have us believe that the Torah chose this point to state that seventeen years henceforth, the Jews would be miserable. Why does the Torah make that point here? What lesson can we glean from it?
In typical Jewish fashion we will answer the question with another question. When King David prayed for the redemption he wrote, “Make us happy, as many as the days that you afflicted us and as many as the years that we have seen evil.” The obvious meaning here is that David prayed that our happiness last as long and be as intense as our affliction was. Some have wondered why David wrote about the years that we have seen evil rather than the years that we have experienced evil.
There is a difference between suffering and seeing it as such. Suppose your car breaks down and you were told that the repair bill will be ten thousand dollars. You are brought up short and wonder where the money will come from. But suppose that the day before your car broke down, your roof caved in and the repair bill was fifty thousand dollars. Suddenly, your ten thousand dollar repair no longer seems daunting.
This is why people who have sunk so far into debt think little of increasing their debt. They are so far sunk that they cannot hope to extricate themselves anyway, how much more damage can another ten thousand dollars cause?
Suppose further that the day before your car broke down your doctor informed you that your life is G-d forefend at risk. In that case, the ten thousand dollars wouldn’t at all feel like a problem. The smaller problem would be entirely dwarfed by the larger one. When you are worried about life, of what value is money? Even ten-thousand dollars’ worth of money.
This is why King David asked that our happiness be as intense as the years that we have seen evil. We might experience many years of evil, but it is only in the beginning of our suffering that we actually perceive our suffering as terrible. After a while we became inured to it and are no longer anguished.
David wanted our happiness to be as intense as the suffering that we experienced before we were numbed to it. He wanted G-d to grant us a level of happiness that would cause our hearts to hum with gladness to the same extent that it stirred with anguish when we were strangers to suffering and reeled from the full brunt of its anguish.
We now return to reexamine Rashi’s explanation for the closed beginning to our Torah portion. Rashi wrote that “as soon as our father Jacob passed away, the eyes and the heart of Israel were “closed,” because of the misery of the slavery, for they (the Egyptians) commenced to subjugate them.”
When the subjugation began, the eyes and hearts of Israel were closed with misery. It was because Jews were exceedingly comfortable in Egypt during Jacob’s life that the initial subjugation triggered such misery. Had they suffered throughout Jacob’s seventeen years in Egypt they would not have been so miserable with the increased suffering that would have befallen them after his passing. It is precisely because they were happy during his lifetime that the marked contrast caused them such misery.
This explains why their misery is raised by the Torah precisely at the point that describes the best years of Jacob’s life, namely the seventeen years that he spent in Egypt. It is only because those years were so good that the suffering that followed was so difficult.
This discussion yields a fascinating insight. The human spirit is remarkably adaptable. When suffering becomes our norm, we adapt and learn to cope. Anguish is the experience of exceptional suffering. When we experience anguish we tend to fall into destructive thought patterns that color all of life with the brush of misery, but ironically, the opposite is true. If we are experiencing anguish it is a sign that our lives are largely worry free. The hardship that is the source of our anguish is an anomaly for us, which is why we are so anguished by it. Had all of life been miserable, we would have adapted.
Ironically, the experience of anguish is a wonderful sign. It tells us much about our quality of life.
Another ironic fact is that understanding anguish helps to dissipate anguish. When anguish is seen from this light, its sting and harshness is softened. It no longer hammers against our heart with relentless intensity, it hums a soft reassuring tune in the gratitude compartment of our brain.