Life Or Existence?

Written by Rabbi Stephen Baars on . Posted in Torah

When does death occur? Is it when the brain ceases to function, or maybe when the heart fails to pump blood? While this question is important, consider this: Maybe life stops long before either of these two calamities. Long before the ambulance is called, someone could already be DOA.

If you were to meet the father of the wisest man in the world, what would you ask him?

That’s what happens in the Torah portion coming up, Vayigash. Pharaoh meets Jacob, Joseph’s father, and he asks him this: “How many are the days of your life?” (Genesis 47:8). “130 years,” Jacob tells him (47:9).

Why does he ask Jacob how old he is?

Joseph is Pharaoh’s most important servant. He had done a full background check that surely would have included his father’s age. The reason Pharaoh asked was because he already knew.

Okay, that makes the question even more interesting. If Pharaoh knew how old Jacob was, why did he ask? Think about it: If you were going to meet someone who was 130, what would make you ask how old he was?

Let me explain.

Have you ever met anyone who was 130? Neither had Pharaoh. So, try and imagine what a 130-year-old man would look like. You’ve seen 90, maybe even 100. Just extrapolate to 130. Got it? Now imagine you meet someone who you know is 130. What would make you ask him how old he was?

If he wasn’t what you expected.

Pharaoh asked Jacob how old he was because Jacob didn’t look the part. When Pharaoh saw Jacob enter with such life, such vitality, he couldn’t help but ask the question.

However, it’s deeper than that, Pharaoh is not really interested in Jacob’s linear age. Rather, upon seeing Jacob, Pharaoh wonders: Where is the shell of a man that one of your great age typically becomes? Pharaoh can see that Jacob is old, yet he bears none of the marks of a life of mere existence. Instead, Jacob exudes the appearance of a life that was fully lived. So Pharaoh asks: “How many days have you actually experienced living?” as opposed to merely existing. And Jacob's answer is: All of them.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (19th century Germany) astutely explains: “When one counts by years, one does not reckon any more the days. It is only with a few select people that each day is full of importance and is considered by them as having a special meaning. A really true human being does not live years but days. Similarly, in the great psalm of Moses ... ‘Teach us to count our days!’”

When you’re young, it is easy to fool yourself (and others) that you’re really living, as opposed to existing. But that’s when you’re young; everyone can see what kind of life you led when you get old. To experience a meaningful life, it must be filled with meaningful days. A great vacation now and again just won’t cut it. Smiling for the camera and laughing at the right jokes doesn’t make for a life.

Don’t wait till it’s obvious. Do something meaningful today!

By Rabbi Stephen Baars

 Originally from London, Rabbi Stephen Baars resides in Rockville, Maryland, and serves as executive director of Aish Seminars. He did nine years of post-graduate studies at the Aish HaTorah Rabbinical College in Jerusalem, and has been an educator and marriage counselor for the past 25 years. Rabbi Baars and his wife, Ruth, are blessed with seven children. Learn more about Rabbi Baars at and