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Parashat Vayehi – Jacob’s End-of-Life Wisdom
Reb Simcha Paull Raphael Ph.D.
At the end of Genesis the life long journey of the illustrious patriarch Jacob comes to an end. Surrounded by his extended family, Jacob dies, he “was gathered unto his people” (Gen. 49:33). Subsequently, the complex, distinguished life of Joseph comes to an end.
These concluding chapters of Genesis offer a relevant model for “conscious living and dying” today. Living in a death-denying culture, we can learn a great deal from Jacob and Joseph to help us deal more openly with the end-of-life journey and with grief in our families and communities.
“The time drew near for Israel to die” (Gen. 47:29). With death immanent, Jacob speaks calmly with his family. There is no equivocation, or denial of death; instead there is a willingness to accept death realistically. This stands in contrast to stories we hear where families that cannot speak openly with each other about death. Jacob’s exemplary model impacts his son Joseph who encounters his own mortality with a similar openness saying to his brothers: “Behold I am about to die.” (Gen. 50:24)
We are affected by how those around us talk about death, how they grieve. The attitude towards death exemplified by Jacob and Joseph invites us to ask: Who are our models for dealing with death? What did we learn in our own families of origin? And what attitudes are we passing on to our children? Each time we emulate Jacob and Joseph and speak openly with loved ones about death, we bring a renewed vision of the end-of-life journey.
In addition to acceptance of his mortality, Jacob actively prepares for his death, reflecting upon his life and legacy: “God blessed me and said, ‘I am going to make you fruitful and will increase your numbers. I will make you a community of peoples, and I will give this land as an everlasting possession to your descendants after you.’” (Gen. 48:3-4). Jacob recalls moments of pain and loss: “As I was returning from Paddan, Rachel died in the land of Canaan while we were still on the the road to Bethlehem.” (Gen. 48:7). Jacob is doing his “legacy work,” recalling, reflecting upon and sharing his life experiences, and that is exactly the task awaiting us as we enter “the winter years of life,” reflecting upon and transmitting to others our life legacy.
As death approaches, Jacob blesses his children (Gen. 49), sharing loving yet painfully honest feelings. This too is in contrast to the emotional denial pervasive in our culture. Jacob is “finishing business,” a necessary, healthy part of the process of dying. We need to prepare for our own end-of-life journey, leaving our relationships clear and unencumbered. While we are alive we can work towards healing, offering and receiving forgiveness. Jacob teaches us to “clean up our act,” preparing for our death through loving honest, open communication with those in our intimacy and friendship circles.
Jacob also gives clear instructions for his burial: “Bury me with my fathers in the cave in the field of Ephron the Hittite, the cave in the field of Machpelah, near Mamre in Canaan, which Abraham bought as a burial place from Ephron the Hittite, along with the field “ (Gen. 49:29-30).
In making sure his estate is in order, Jacob teaches us how important it is to have conversations with family members about legal wills, advance directives, estate planning, cemetery plots, burial requests, etc. We are all faced with important decisions to make; burial, choice about cremation, traditional Hevra Kaddisha practices, green burial, organ donation, and more. All these topics are essential to discuss with those in our inner circle of family relationships. Dealing with these concerns can be challenging and emotionally laden. This parasha invites us to explore what are the personal and family choices that need to be made, and who are the people with whom we need to speak about these concerns.
Following Jacob’s death, Joseph arranges his father’s funeral, in accordance with practices of Egyptian royalty. “Joseph directed the physicians in his service to embalm his father Israel… taking a full forty days, for that was the time required for embalming. And the Egyptians mourned for him seventy days.” (Gen. 50:2-3).
With the mourning period complete, Joseph requests Pharaoh’s permission to bury Jacob in Canaan. Accompanied by an extensive Egyptian retinue, Joseph and kin leave Goshen heading “to the threshing floor of Atad, beyond the Jordan, [where] they … made a mourning for his father seven days.” (Gen. 50:10).
Joseph honors natural rhythms of grief, one step at a time, teaching us something important about mourning and bereavement. Too often families want to run from the cemetery back into life allocating no time for mourning. One operating cultural belief is that grief ignored might go away; one need not feel the pain of loss. Yet Judaism teaches us “to everything there is a season’” one cannot hurry grief any more than one can deny it. Joseph’s actions remind us to honor the organic nature of grief, reflected so clearly in Jewish traditions of Shiva, shloshim, Kaddish and Yahrzeit.
Today profound shifts are taking place in dealing with dying and death. Yes, many old cultural habits of death denial persist, but more than one-third of all of deaths in North America take place within a hospice program these days. Undoubtedly, Jewish tradition has much to offer towards a new approach to death care in our times.
The final chapters of Genesis provides a model for dealing with death with a quality of openness and integrity. And in affirming this model, for our families and our Jewish communities, we can affirm, as Judaism does, the inherent holiness of life.
Reb Simcha Paull Raphael, Ph.D. is Founding Director of the DA’AT Institute for Death Awareness, Advocacy and Training. He has served as Adjunct Professor of Religion at LaSalle University and Temple University, is on Faculty on the Art of Dying Institute of the New York Open Center, and works as a psychotherapist and spiritual director in Philadelphia. Ordained by Reb Zalman as a Rabbinic Pastor, he is a Fellow of the Rabbis Without Borders Network, and author of numerous publications including the groundbreaking Jewish Views of the Afterlife, and is co-editor of Jewish End-of-Life Care in a Virtual Age: Our Traditions Reimagined. His website is www.daatinstitute.net.