ויאמר ישראל רב עוד יוסף בני חי אלכה ואראנו בטרם אמות.
“And Yisroel [Yakov] said: ‘How great, my son Yosef is still alive; I will go and see him before I die.’” (Bereishis 45:28)
Rashi explains the word rav- great, as follows: “How great is this joy and happiness that my son Yosef is still alive.” What is Rashi adding with this explanation? Is there any doubt that Yakov was extremely overjoyed to learn that Yosef was still alive, after mourning his death for twenty two years?
Somewhat further in this parsha (47:8) the Torah recounts Yakov’s meeting with Pharaoh. When Pharaoh asked him how old he was, Yakov replied: “My years are one hundred and thirty; few and difficult were the days of my life and I did not reach the days of my ancestors’ lifetimes in the days that they lived.” Why did Yakov say that his days were few? He still had more years to live, so how could he determine at this point in his life if it was long or short? Why does Yakov complain that he hadn’t reached the days of his parents’ lifetimes? Maybe he would still live to be as old as they were! The lengthy wording also needs clarification. The verse could have stopped short after “lifetimes” without adding “in the days that they lived.”
In order to understand this issue, let us backtrack a bit to the sale of Yosef. The verse says (Bereishis 37:33): “And he recognized [the tunic] and he said: ‘This is the tunic of my son – a wild beast ate him, Yosef was devoured, devoured!’” Why does the verse use so many extra words? If a beast ate Yosef, then he was devoured, so why does the verse stress it not once, but twice?
It is known that before the holy Yetev Lev zt”l became the Rav of Siget, he once traveled to the tzaddik Rebbe Eizik of Zidichov in order to discuss various issues that bothered him. When he arrived to Zidichov he learned that the Rebbe was secluded all day, and he only accepted visitors for one half hour each day. Everyone who had anything to ask the Rebbe had to pass by during that half hour. When he arrived at the designated time, he saw a waiting room full of people who each wanted a few minutes of the tzaddik’s time. At first he wondered how it would be possible for the Rebbe to see so many people during such a short time, and he almost despaired of having his questions answered. But as he watched the proceedings, he became more hopeful. Each kvittel was placed before the Rebbe, and before the visitor even opened his mouth the Rebbe gave the appropriate blessing or advice. “Travel to Lemberg to Doctor S.,” he said to the first man. “Start selling oxen,” he instructed the second man, and so on.
When it was the Yetev Lev’s turn, Reb Eizik’l stood up for him and declared: “Welcome, Rav of Siget!” The Yetev Lev tried hinting to the Rebbe’s aide that this must be some mistake, but Rebbe Eizik already had someone bring over a chair and asked his visitor to sit. “Please tell me your questions,” he said.
After their discussion, the tzaddik said: “You are probably wondering why I was so quick with the others, while at the same time I am spending so much time with you. I want to tell you that before I was born, it was decreed that I would be a leader of the Jewish people. I argued that this would take up too much time from learning, and so I was promised in Heaven that I would be able to reply quickly to people’s requests, even before they presented them. But this is only when it comes to physical matters. When it comes to spiritual matters, I will gladly give of my time to respond to the visitor’s questions. It says in Yeshaya (65:24): ‘Before they call to Me I will answer them; while they still speak I will listen.’ Even before the people call to me with their mundane problems, I will answer them, but if they speak of spiritual matters, I will sit down and listen no matter how long it takes.
The Rebbe of Zidichov listened to the Yetev Lev and answered all of his questions. When the Yetev Lev returned home, his rebbetzin told him that a letter arrived from the town of Siget inviting him to serve as their Rav. That’s when the Yetev Lev understood why the Rebbe called him “the Sigeter Rav.”
This story is a good illustration of the Baal Shem Tov’s teaching, that speed is a very worthy attribute, but sometimes it is better to slow down. When it comes to material issues, a person should pay the minimum attention necessary to those issues, but when it comes to spiritual matters, he should be careful to give those his full attention, even if it takes more time.
We can now understand what Yakov told Pharaoh. “My years are one hundred and thirty.” These are the years that I physically lived. But “few and difficult were the days of my [real] life” – my spiritual life that really matters. Why do I feel that I haven’t lived my life as fully as I should have? Because I look back to the way my parents lived and I see that “I did not reach the days of my ancestors’ lifetimes - in the days that they lived.” My ancestors lived spiritually every moment that they lived physically. All of the days that they lived were counted as part of their spiritual lives, because they truly lived each moment.
When Yakov saw the blood-soaked tunic, he said: “this is the tunic of my son. He might be alive, but the rah (“wild” beast), the evilness, could have devoured him. Perhaps he strayed from the correct path. Maybe he was devoured physically, but maybe something much worse happened to him and he was devoured spiritually.” This is the meaning of the lengthy wording of this verse and the double use of the word “devoured”.
Now, when Yakov finally heard the wonderful news that Yosef was alive, and he was assured through various signs that he was just as righteous as before, Yakov’s joy was very great indeed. When he understood that his dear son didn’t just exist, but he lived an elevated spiritual life, that is when his heart overflowed with true happiness.