By Rabbi Yoni Birnbaum
Theodore Roosevelt is said to have remarked: “Old age is like everything else. To make a success of it, you’ve got to start young.” Interestingly, it would seem that Pharaoh was bothered by the very same issue in this week’s sedra. Upon meeting the elderly Jacob for the first time, he asks: “How many are the days of the years of your life?” (Genesis 47:8).
This seems an unusual way to open a conversation with someone you haven’t met. The commentators suggest, therefore, that Pharaoh realised the man standing in front of him was no ordinary person.
There was a special aura about him, something that told Pharaoh this was to be no ordinary meeting. If so, Pharaoh’s question to Jacob was very specific. He was not interested in simply finding out how old he was. Instead, his true question was: “How have you been able to attain such wisdom – to achieve so much in life?’
Surely it could only have been through living life to the full. Pharaoh wanted to know how many days there were that Jacob had actually lived – how many were the “days of the years” of his life. And Jacob’s insightful answer was that “the days of the years of my sojourning are 133 years.” (ibid 47:9) In other words, every day of his life was lived to the full.
Jacob was able to measure his lifespan by looking back at every day and knowing what he had achieved on it. The secret to achieving a lot in life is to make every day count, to use the fresh opportunities each day brings to build on the successes and achievements of the previous day.
Every day is a fresh opportunity to do mitzvot, say a kind word to someone else, and rebuild a damaged relationship. And every day is the right day to reflect on those critical life goals and aspirations that we set for ourselves. Have we used today to do something – however small – in order to achieve what we know we are ultimately capable of in life? Jacob’s answer to Pharaoh is as powerful now as it was then. Because it is only when we start making every day count that we can really begin to count the years.