Parsha Mitzvot: Vayechi: The Pleasure of Honoring Our Parents
Judaism is all about choosing life, but there is one choice between life and death I find more challenging than others: “He who hates gifts will live.” (Proverbs 15:27) I enjoy writing thank you notes and find it difficult to experience a gift as a choice between life and death. I especially love receiving gifts from my children. Jacob seems to have been different.
“And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt for seventeen years.” (Genesis 47:28) “Why did the Torah mention the number of years he lived in Egypt? We find that Joseph lived with his father seventeen years before he was sold. Just as Jacob supported Joseph for seventeen years, so too, Joseph supported his father for seventeen years.” (Ba’alei Tosafot)
It seems that Jacob was willing to be supported by his son only for the number of years that he had supported Joseph. A son’s obligation to feed his father is with his father’s funds. Any of his own money is considered charity and a gift. (Shulchan Aruch Y”D 240)
“Shemayah says, ‘Love work; despise lordliness.’” (Avot 1:10) “Love work; and do not be supported by communal funds, and live a long life, as the verse teaches, “He who hates gifts will live.” We have learned, “When you eat the labor of your hands, you are praiseworthy, and it will be well with you.” (Psalms 128:2) ‘Despise lordliness; for it buries you, as the Talmud (Berachot 55a) teaches, ‘Why did Joseph die earlier than his brothers? He practiced lordliness.” (Rashi: Avot 1)
It’s fair to say that if the second half of Shemayah’s teaching applies to Joseph, the first part, “Love work,” applies to Jacob who desired to only eat from his own work. (See Jacob’s response to Laban in Genesis 30:31, understood by Mishnat Rabbi Eliezer, Chapter 8 as, “Loving work.”)
Why was Jacob more concerned about receiving gifts from Joseph than he was from his other sons? Joseph did not directly receive a portion in Israel. His two sons received their two portions directly through Jacob, not Joseph.
It’s interesting that Jacob insisted on buying the right of the first-born from Eisav, and would only steal the blessings at the insistence of his mother. Isaac believed that Eisav was as careful as Jacob about gifts and instructed him to earn his blessing by going out and hunting for the animal he would use to feed his father.
My paternal grandmother z”l visited us in Toronto in 1966. She wanted to give my parents money to buy food, and my father zt”l responded, “I receive so much pleasure from welcoming you and honoring you that you are already giving a gift to me!” When we walked to Yeshiva a few minutes later, my tiny hand wrapped in his, to me, giant hand, he said, “That’s how you should feel about serving God. Don’t serve for reward. Say, ‘The pleasure I receive from serving You is the greatest pleasure You can give me!’”
Joseph surely felt the same way about supporting his father. But Jacob was committed to teaching all of us the important lesson about “Loving work.” (Mishnat Rabbi Eliezer) He did such an excellent job that I feel perfectly comfortable granting my children the pleasure of giving gifts to me! So, I am choosing life; theirs!