Lost 33 Years
When Jacob and Joseph were reunited, Joseph introduced his father to Pharaoh. First Jacob blessed Pharaoh, who then inquired of him: “How many are the days of the years of your life?”
Jacob’s response was: “the years of my sojourning have been 130. The years of my life have been few and hard, and have not equaled the years of my forefathers’ lifetimes in the days of their sojourning.”
The Midrash actually faults Jacob for the negative characterization of his life. Moreover, the Midrash says, because Jacob uttered 33 words to describe his difficult life, it cut his life short by 33 years. [He should have lived to the age of 180, like his father Isaac. But because he used 33 words to improperly bemoan his life, 33 years of life were taken from him.]
One is entitled to ask why Jacob should be punished so severely for his honest answer to Pharaoh’s inquiry.
The Midrash addresses this question and explains that the reason Jacob’s response to Pharaoh was considered sinful is that a person must be as grateful to G‑d for the bad as he is for the good in his life. A righteous person, in particular, should accept with equanimity whatever comes his way from G‑d.
Another Midrashic source adds that G‑d reacted to Jacob’s complaint by telling him: “I have saved you from Esau and Laban. I have brought Dinah and Joseph back to you. Yet you complain about your life that your years are few and bad.”
We must understand how a man of such a high G‑dly character could lack in gratitude for to G‑d?
Many Questions
When we analyze the Midrash two simple questions come to mind:
First, what prompted Pharaoh to ask Jacob for his age? Is it proper etiquette to ask an older person his or her age?
Second, Jacob’s response was not in line with Pharaoh’s question. Pharaoh asked Jacob how old he was and nothing else. Why then did Jacob have to add that the 130 years of his life were few and hard? That was not a response to Pharaoh’s question.
Nachmanides explains that Jacob appeared to be much older than he actually was. Pharaoh’s curiosity was piqued because he did not know anyone in his kingdom who appeared that old. Jacob, therefore, understood that Pharaoh was not just asking him for his age but wanted to know how he was able to live so long, to which he replied accordingly that he was not as old as he appeared. It was his travail and suffering that caused him to appear older than he was.
However, two other questions need to be resolved:
First, when we count the 33 words for which he was denied 33 years of life it emerges that several of those words are actually Pharaoh’s question to Jacob. Why would Jacob be punished for Pharaoh’s question?
Second, why did Pharaoh ask Jacob, “How many are the days of the years of your life?” Why did he add the words “the days?” He could have shortened his inquiry to: “How many are the years of your life?” And, in fact, that is exactly what Jacob responded to—the years of his life, not the days of the years of his life.
Upon reflection the answer to the second question is the key to answering the first as well.
Answering His Own Question, Not Pharaoh’s
Jacob was not really responding to Pharaoh’s question but rather to his version of Pharaoh’s question.
To explain:
When Jacob first came to Pharaoh he did so with a blessing.  We can assume that a blessing from a person of Jacob’s stature had a powerful impact on Pharaoh. Pharaoh cannot have seen and felt the presence of such a powerfully spiritual person in his entire life. While Joseph was a spiritual giant, he was able to conceal his spirituality and act as though he was comfortable in his role as a political leader who dealt with down-to earth material matters. When Jacob appeared, he overwhelmed Pharaoh with his spiritual charisma.
Pharaoh therefore did not ask Jacob for his age. Rather, he wanted to know the days of the years of Jacob’s life. What that meant was what kind of a life did he lead? What occupied him on a daily basis? How could a physical human being maintain such a high level of spirituality and survive in this very materialistic and cruel world? How could one be so consistently holy and other-worldly in these circumstances?
Jacob’s Humility
Jacob, in his humility, did not fathom that he was unique and that, of all people, Pharaoh, leader of the most morally bankrupt country, was able to sense his spirituality. So, Jacob imagined that Pharaoh was simply asking about his hoary old age and what caused him to age so quickly, as Nachmanides explained.
We can now answer the first question, why Jacob was punished for Pharaoh’s question:
In truth, Jacob was not held accountable for the words Pharaoh used.  Rather, it was for his understanding of Pharaoh’s question.  In reality, it was his understanding of Pharaoh’s question that contributed to his demeaning remarks about his life of which G‑d did not approve.
An Alternate Explanation for Jacob’s Response
One can suggest an alternate way of answering the question of why Jacob added the negative characterization in his response to Pharaoh as to his age.
We may speculate that Jacob did indeed understand the true import of Pharaoh’s bewilderment. How could a mortal reach such heights of consistent spirituality? Pharaoh based his assessment of Jacob’s heightened spirituality on his very limited physical existence. When he saw a gaunt and shriveled Jacob Pharaoh concluded that it was caused by Jacob’s incredible spiritual side.
Jacob, in his humility, answered that his compromised physical stature was not caused by advanced spirituality but by the travail and pain he experienced in his life.
Although humility is an admirable trait, Jacob was faulted for denying the good G‑d had bestowed on him by saving him from his brother Esau, uncle Laban and reuniting him with Dinah and Joseph.
Misdirected Humility
Here we are, living on the cusp of the Messianic Era and waiting for the imminent complete and final Redemption and still we wonder why it hasn’t happened yet.
One answer some people have to that gnawing question is to invoke humility; we are very far from being ready for the Messianic Age thereby denying the incredible spiritual assets that we possess.
While humility is indeed an admirable and indispensable trait it cannot be allowed to minimize the light with which G‑d has endowed us. We can’t be humble at “G‑d’s expense.”
As discussed in many of these essays, the Rebbe declared that, in many ways, we are spiritually more advanced than our predecessors. This, the Rebbe based on two premises:
First, we are endowed with the cumulative positive energy from all of our forebears.
Second, the dedication and tenacity we have shown to maintain our Jewish identities and our commitment to Torah and Mitzvos, despite the darkness and multiple challenges of a long and difficult exile, makes us unique in G‑d’s eyes.
Even the Pharaohs of the world ask us, incredulously, how have you survived and even thrived though your lengthy sojourn in Galus? 
Our answer should not be a self-deprecating response but one that ascribes our successes to the fact that we, as a people, have sacrificed so much to maintain our connection to G‑d. We are indeed a unique and worthy people.
To paraphrase Pharaoh, “the days of the years of our lives” have been filled with meaning and purpose. We are ready for Moshiach!