In the opening verses of this week’s parashah, Joseph is informed that his father Jacob has become ill, so he takes his sons to Jacob to be blessed before the patriarch dies.
Sometime afterward, Joseph was told, “Your father is ill. So he took with him his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. When Jacob was told, “Your son Joseph ahs come to see you,” Israel summoned his strength and sat up in bed. (Genesis 48:1, 2)Midrash Beraishit Rabbah makes the astounding claim that not only illness, but also old age and affliction did not come into the world naturally, but rather bidden by our patriarchs. Is this a case of “be careful what you wish for” or is there another side to the experiences we most wish to avoid that we need to learn?
Abraham introduced he appearance of aging to the world, Isaac affliction, and Jacob illness.We are accustomed to thinking that appearing old age, affliction, and illness are curses that are part and parcel of the human experience only avoided by the worse curse of dying young, and then consign this midrash to the “be careful what you wish for” category.
Abraham requested the appearance of old age, pleading before God: "Master of the Universe! When a man and his son enter a town, none know whom to honor." Said God to him: "By your life, you have asked a proper thing, and it will commence with you." Thus… And Abraham was old and come along in days (Genesis 24:1).
Isaac asked for affliction, pleading thus: "Master of the Universe! When a man dies without affliction, Judgment threatens him; but if You afflict him, Judgment would not threaten him." Said God to him: "By your life, you have asked well, and it will commence with you." Thus… And it came to pass, that when Isaac was old, and his eyes were dimmed (Genesis 27:1).
Jacob requested illness, saying to Him: "Master of the Universe! A man dies without previous illness and does not settle his affairs with his children..." Said God to him: "By your life, you have asked well, and it will commence with you." Thus… Joseph was told, “Your father is ill” (Genesis 48:1).
Yet this midrash introduces a surprising idea: the appearance of old age, affliction, and illness have silver linings, beneficial sides. Old age can – and should – confer honor and recognition for what one has accomplished in life and the wisdom one has accrued over time. For the Rabbis, suffering affliction protects us against future judgment. For those who don’t subscribe to this theology, suffering acutely sensitizes us to the experience of others who suffer: we wouldn’t choose it, but having experienced it we can assimilate the experience to become better people. Jacob’s illness permitted him time to settle his affairs, confer blessings on his children and grandchildren, and achieve closure on this life. Dying suddenly without warning, he might not have carved out the opportunity to do these things.
None of us chooses to appear old (would that we could add years without aging), suffer affliction, or become ill, but the Rabbis remind us that even in these it is possible to find a way to live better.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman