Riddle of the Sphinx: A Thought on Yaakov and Yosef

At the start of  this week’s Torah portion, Vayehi, we read “ Yaakov lived in seventeen years in the land of Egypt…“ (Genesis 47:28). On this the Baal HaTorim quoting the Midrash HaGadol picks up on the number seventeen. This number seventeen clearly sets the time that Yaakov lives in the land of Yosef to the time that Yosef his son spent growing up in the house of his father before he was sold into slavery in Egypt. This points out a powerful symmetry between fathers and sons in general and Yaakov and Yosef specifically . The child who was dependent on the parent physically and emotionally for their first stage of his or her life is often forced to reverse roles with their child for the parents’ final stage of life. There is a certain balance in the living out of the Riddle of the Sphinx.

Great Sphinx of Giza - 20080716a.jpg

As the riddle goes, “What goes on four feet in the morning, two feet at noon, and three feet in the evening?” The answer goes that is a person. As a baby in the morning of a person’s life they crawl on all fours. As an adult in the noon of their life, they walk on two feet. But when they are old, in the evening of their life, they walk with a cane, on three feet. In the first 17 years Yosef was as if on all fours, in the middle Yaakov and Yosef both walk around and make their way in the world on two feet. Upon their reconnection in Egypt we see a wounded Yisrael with his cane living his final 17 years with his Yosef in Egypt.

It is crazy how I can see myself in my children’s different stages. I also see myself evolving into my parents more and more. The experience of the passing of time has proven a rich source of reflection.  I cannot say it is a riddle, but it is surely a mystery.

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