A Dvar Torah For Parshat VaYehi, 5771.
Parshat VaYehi brings Jacob, his family, and us to the end of his physical life, and it allows us to touch the edges of the impending birth of the Israelites as a nation. Each of Jacob’s death bed scenes –the first with his grandsons, Ephraim and Menashe and the second with his sons- is presented with the almost idyllic quality of cinematic death bed scenes; the patriarch of the family offers blessing and wisdom to his progeny, his infirmities do not prevent him from being mentally sharp and emotionally connected, and he simply dies upon completing his life tasks and putting his house in order, with no mention of his pain, suffering, struggle or physical degradation. Those of us who have encountered the final stages of life with loved ones and congregants know that, at least on the surface, this death bed portrayal by the Torah appears far too gentle and pleasant than it actually is a lot of the time. However, I invite you to look just beneath the surface at the more nuanced progression of the narrative about Jacob’s death, beginning with an important scene in last week’s portion, VaYiggash. When Jacob meets Pharoah, the king asks him, “How old are you?” Jacob replies quite intriguingly that the years of his sojourn on earth have been 130, and they have been few and difficult. Even at the moment of his reunion with his beloved Joseph and the supposed reconciliation among his children, he is fully aware of the losses and pain he has suffered, from the time of his complicated relationship with his brother, Esau, and his parents, until his old age. At the opening of VaYechi, we encounter Jacob as an old and dying man of 147, seventeen years later, the number of years a telling echo of Joseph’s age when his father’s favoritism set Joseph, Jacob, and his brothers on their course of tragic missteps, hatred and pain. As this final narrative continues, we watch Jacob express gratitude for seeing Joseph again, then we watch him privilege his younger grandson Ephraim over his older grandson Menashe, almost as if repeating his past errors of violating societal rules to favor a younger sibling in a way that could engender great resentment in his son’s family. Jacob calls his sons together for what is called, at the end, a blessing, but is really mostly an after- the-fact, bitter criticism of what they have done wrong, how they have disappointed him in the past, or his own observations of who they are. We may find his open assessment of his sons refreshing, but we are also left with the disturbing feeling that this is too little, too late, and that of the all times in his life, not being able to let go of his anger at some of his children at the end of his life is likely not a good thing. It is no wonder then that the Torah continues to call him by his former name, Yaakov (the sneaky heel) and his new name, Yisrael (the one who fights with God and men). To the very end, he is both: a prisoner of the devices and artifices of his younger life, and an older, wiser, freer man who learns from his errors to face himself and others with courage and honesty.
In the last chapter of his celebrated book, How We Die, Dr. Sherwin Nuland writes the following:
The dignity that we seek in dying must be found in the dignity with which we have lived our lives…the art of dying is the art of living. The honesty and grace of the years of life that are ending is the real measure of how we die. It is not in the last weeks or days that we compose the message that will be remembered, but in all the decades that preceded them.
I am not certain that I agree entirely with Dr. Nuland. I have watched people of great dignity become ravaged by the indignities of dying that affect deeply their mental capacity to live with and love those around them. I have also watched dying people whose lives were filled with undignified wrongdoing towards others make serious, often successful attempts at repentance and reconciliation with others. Still, his general point is well taken: the quality of our dying often does relate closely to the quality of our lives. So, I ask us: do we, readers of faith, feel that Jacob’s impending death reflects the way in which he lived? More importantly, did he live well? Most important, are his life and death mirrors that we can hold up to ourselves and from which we can learn? Let’s read VaYechi together and continue the ongoing conversation about these critical questions.