Far More Pain Than Contentment

Jacob Blesses Pharaoh
Illustration by Owen Jones from “The History of Joseph and His Brethren” (Day & Son, 1869).

In the 3rd century BCE, a Greek named Pyrrhus ruled an area in the western Balkans called Epirus. He is remembered for two battles he fought and won against the Romans—the first in 280 BCE, the second in 279 BCE. After his second victory, however, Pyrrhus is reported by Plutarch to have said, “Another such victory over the Romans, and we are undone.” [From Plutarch, Lives, Pyrrhus, sec. 21.] What did he mean?

Consider two armies, one Greek with one hundred soldiers, and a king, the other Roman, with three hundred soldiers and a king. If for every Greek soldier slain, two Roman soldiers are killed, after the death of one hundred Greeks, only the Greek king will survive. However, after the death of two hundred Romans, the Roman king and one hundred of his soldiers will remain. This is what Pyrrhus meant. The Romans had far more soldiers available than did Pyrrhus. To win like this is to lose. Pyrrhus has given his name to this type of situation, one in which victory is achieved but at a devastating cost. It is called a “Pyrrhic Victory.”

Have you ever known someone who seemed willing to pay the price for something they desired no matter what it cost? I have. And, sometimes, to my regret, I have been that person.

In my late twenties, I took up running, with a passion. I wasn’t particularly good at it. Nevertheless, I became addicted to it. After one race, a rather long one, run on the city streets of Philadelphia, my feet throbbed with pain. I went to the doctor. I told him how my feet hurt, and I told him I was a runner. His advice was to give up running, or, if I still felt compelled to run, not to run more than five miles at a time, and only on dirt, or a cinder track. Otherwise, he warned me, I would, in later years, suffer from osteoarthritis.

I was disappointed. I felt that I couldn’t live without running. I said to myself: “Either this body is going to do what I want it to, or it’s going to the hospital.” How foolish! Today, I have osteoarthritis in my feet. It’s not the end of the world. With fortitude and Ibuprofen, I get along quite well with it. Well, mostly it’s the Ibuprofen. But oh I wish I had listened to that doctor.


In Chapter 47 of Genesis, in the Bible, the patriarch Jacob, reunited, after many years, with his beloved son Joseph, is presented to Pharaoh by Joseph. It always amazes me how friendly this ancient Pharaoh was to Joseph and his family. Making conversation, Pharaoh asks Jacob a fairly common question, his age. Instead of replying with just his age, however, Jacob says the following [translation by Robert Alter]: “The days of the years of my sojournings are a hundred and thirty years. Few and evil have been the days of the years of my life, and they have not attained the days of the years of my fathers in their days of sojourning.”

“Few and evil have been the days of the years of my life…” Really? It seems to me as if he got everything he ever wanted. Alter, in addition to being a gifted translator, is an astute commentator. He makes an following comment on Jacob’s response to Pharaoh’s question.

Jacob’s somber summary of his own life echoes with a kind of complex solemnity against all that we have seen him undergo. He has, after all, achieved everything he aspired to achieve: the birthright, the blessing, marriage with his beloved Rachel, progeny, and wealth. But one measure of the profound moral realism of the story is that although he gets everything he wanted, it is not in the way he would have wanted, and the consequence is far more pain than contentment. From his “clashing” (25:22) with his twin in the womb, everything has been a struggle. He displaces Esau, but only at the price of fear and lingering guilt and long exile. He gets Rachel, but only by having Leah imposed on him, with all the domestic strife that entails, and he loses Rachel early in childbirth. He is given a new name by his divine adversary, but comes away with a permanent wound. He gets the full solar-year number of twelve sons, but there is enmity among them (for which he bears some responsibility), and he spends twenty-two years continually grieving over his favorite son, who he believes is dead. This is, in sum, a story with a happy ending that withholds any simple feeling of happiness at the end.

Alter, Robert. The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary. W. W. Norton & Company.

In this New Year 2020, may we all enjoy victories with truly happy endings, unlike those of Jacob, successes that withhold “any simple feeling of happiness at the end.” Heaven knows, we need them.

Here’s one of my favorite running clips from the 1994 movie, Forrest Gump.

All the best,
Gershon


This post is dedicated to my daughter on the occasion of her birthday, January 6, 2020! With her, there has always been far more contentment than pain.