And he lived, Vayechi, in the land of Egypt, Mitzrayim. The story of Jacob is coming to an end. His years were 147, and “the time approached for Israel to die…”
Rashi, our beloved French medieval commentator, notes an unusual pattern in the Sefer Torah. Usually, in the Sefer Torah each new parashah opens after a division of a certain number of blank spaces. Vayechiopens after the space of only one letter. Rashi asks why this passage is “closed.” He states that when Jacob closed his eyes in death, so too were the heart and eyes of all Israel closed. Alternatively, he suggests (in BereshitRabbah, a book of Midrash written between 300-500 CE), that Jacob wanted to reveal “the end” to his sons (the ultimate end of exile for all the people Israel, (according to Gur Aryeh, the16th century Maharal of Prague, in his commentary on Rashi’s commentary!!), but that vision was closed to his eyes.
Jacob makes his desire to be buried in his homeland known and then he proceeds to call his sons and grandsons to him for his final words. Here we have the template for some of our rituals as we prepare for death today.
In Jacob’s last words to his sons and grandsons we find our first ethical will, a tradition of millennia within Judaism, yet now, somewhat lost in our modern world. In 1991 Jack Reimer wrote a book (So That Your Values Live On: Ethical Wills and How to Prepare Them) which details examples of ethical wills. Reimer advocates for why such documents should continue to hold a solid place in our tradition. Sometimes short, sometimes lengthy, sometimes pithy, sometimes convoluted, these wills belie the import of only concerning ourselves with preparing our financial arrangements.
As Jacob prepares to meet his sons, Chapter 47, verse 29, he utters this phrase; “do kindness and truth,chesedv’emet with me.” Chesedv’emet are words which are the defining motto, if you will, of every ChevraKadisha, Jewish burial society. Members of every ChevraKadisha hold a deeply held commitment to performing their work with chesedv’emet, even apologizing to the deceased at the end of their task, for any indignity they may have caused the deceased to suffer.
Jacob’s example of how he speaks to his sons also teaches us to speak words of eulogy, of hesped, with truth and with kindness – to never disparage the dead– but to also not embellish the hesped with pretty and false words. We are called to speak honestly.
Jacob speaks the plain truth, and so should we. Over the past 18 years, I have conducted many funerals and eulogized many souls, some of whom I knew, but many of whom I only “met” through the words of their family members. Our job, in this position, is to find that core truth of their life, and speak to that truth – not to recite a chronology of their accomplishments. I try to listen between the lines of what I have heard from family members, and I find that when I write down a turn of phrase that causes me to shiver, causes me to ask myself if I can really say these words out loud, these are the exact words that need to be said and heard. I always speak these words with kindness – and when I see the tears of sons and daughters, I know I was correct in bringing this particular truth to light. That moment is always a moment when healing begins, that and the sound of dirt hitting the aron, the coffin. Stark truth is what we need to face into the starkness of death.
I differ from those who advocate for “celebrations of life” instead of a funeral. I think grief is grief and must be given adequate room. Our eyes too must close. Just as we saw in Chaye Sarah, we see in Vayechithe imminence of death in the word of life, chaye. We are dying each moment we live. This truth does not in any way diminish our capacity for joy, for immersing ourselves in new challenges, for welcoming new family members – in fact, it does the opposite. Facing into our deaths, we celebrate life in our living – I suggest this is our true celebration of life.
At the end of Vayechi Joseph too dies, after the blessing of seeing three generations raised up through Ephraim. His grandchildren were “raised on his knee.” What an exquisite phrase depicting a loving and present grandparent. Before he died he assured his family that they too would be brought up out of this land. But that is another story, kinderlach. For now, l’chayim.