Part of the life of a rabbi is experiencing death. It seems like I officiate at far more funerals than weddings. And that is even with the increased divorce rate which should, in theory, increase the number of weddings to close to one per person from one per two people. Our people seem to always turn back to tradition for that final journey. This week’s parashah, Vayehi, is also all about death. Even Joseph, the model of the successfully acculturated Jew, insists that he have a proper Jewish funeral in the land of Israel. The Book of Genesis then concludes with the eerily disturbing words that at his death Joseph is embalmed and placed in a coffin, essentially mummified. His remains are kept until the exodus, when they are carried up to Eretz Yisrael and the people finally fulfill his wishes.
Reading Vayehi, most of which is concerned with the death of Jacob and only ends with the death of Joseph, I reflect on how strange it is that we find ourselves always unprepared for death. Jacob dies and all of a sudden Joseph’s brothers are afraid that Joseph will turn against them and they fear for their security. Jacob gives blessings and testaments to his children and grandchildren, he speaks at length, in prose and verse, on what is to be after his passing, and yet he too is embalmed and given a seventy-day Egyptian mourning period only after which his family is able to inter his remains in Hebron in the “family plot.” While Joseph’s remains must wait longer than seventy days, the tension is still evident between the conflicting Egyptian and Hebrew customs. The survivors seem to not quite know what to do even though the deceased was clear about his wishes. I see this as a rabbi all the time. Someone dies and the survivors are frozen in place, asking, “Rabbi, what do I do now?” There is nothing more natural than the disorientation caused by loss, and it is not surprising that the confusion and outright fear that we feel in our own lives is mirrored in the first Israelite family.
While Jewish tradition offers us beautiful guidance on how to ritualize death and pass through the stages of loss, we might find comfort in learning that even the family of Jacob and Joseph were conflicted on how frum and how Egyptian [for us, American] they wanted to be. In the end, they go with the Israelite customs, the traditions of family burial that we continue to this day.
What strikes me most as a rabbi as I so frequently experience death with families is how unprepared everyone is. Individuals are not prepared to die and their families are not prepared for their loss. Looking at things dispassionately, it is surprising that this is so since there is nothing more certain in life than the knowledge that we shall each of us one day die. A lesson of parashat Vayehi, and perhaps the reason why the book of Beginnings ends with stories of death and mourning, is that part of genuine living is preparing for death.
One lesson we can learn from parashat Vayehi is to consider it a mitzvah to prepare for death. Not to prepare in a way that keeps us from enjoying life, but in a way that will help us and our families when the time inevitably comes. One of the first things I did when my first child was born was take out a life insurance policy. And then I took out another when we had our second child. I every now and then make a point of reviewing with my wife information about insurance, pension, etc. We all intend to live long lives, but I generally opt to hope for the best but plan for the worst. I suggest that we all take the time to do that. It is a mitzvah to make sure that we can continue to care for our loved ones even beyond our last breaths. Especially because we do not know when that will be, but we do know that that one day must be.
Preparation only begins with financials. We must also take care to not leave arguments unresolved when they are possible to resolve. While we say that time heals all wounds, not all wounds have the luxury of time to heal. We need to be proactive in expressing our love to those around us and avoid leaving the presence of a loved one with lingering anger.
The second lesson we can learn from the parashah is the importance of our spiritual legacy. Jacob imparts blessing and wisdom to his family, wishing that they continue in the path of the covenant that he inherited from Isaac and Abraham. We cannot wait until our dying day to worry about what will be with our children. That work starts at the beginning. Each decision that we make from education to religious life to culture and even vacation time form the kind of person our child becomes. The investment in our children is not one that can be put off. At every stage of development we are charged with transmitting to them our values and heritage so that they in turn can carry on in the right path once we are gone. Jacob made many errors with his children as told in the Book of Genesis. He set a rather unintimidating bar. But a bar no less. Ultimately, our children will make their own decisions, but we should not have to regret not having imparted something that we should have imparted. The Torah teaches us to do that, not put it off until it is too late.
The first book of the Torah ends with the verse that Joseph’s remains are mummified. His wishes of burial with his family in the land of Israel are not fulfilled. Even when the later Israelites bring his remains with them, he is still not interred in the family plot in Hebron. His purported tomb, a shrine outside Nablus, has become a site of Palestinian and Israeli conflict in recent times. Joseph was the great dreamer who was able to manage a planned economy in Egypt that survived a seven-year famine and become a superpower. But he could not manage his own death and burial. We should try to do a better job.