Vayechi: our life is given to us so that we learn how to die

The narrative opens with the verse “And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt seventeen years; so the days of Jacob, the years of his life, were a hundred forty and seven years.

Immediately we are plunged into an end of life narrative but for the first time we have an extended view as we see Jacob begin to put his family affairs in order and to secure the succession, as a number of different conversations and scenes are recorded.

“And the time drew near that Israel must die; and he called his son Joseph, and said to him: ‘If now I have found favour in thy sight, put, I pray you, your hand under my thigh, and deal kindly and truly with me; bury me not, I pray you, in Egypt .But when I sleep with my fathers, you shall carry me out of Egypt, and bury me in their burying-place.’ And he said: ‘I will do as you have said.’ And he said: ‘Swear to me.’ And he swore to him.”

When Jacob’s father Isaac had died, the narrative was short and to the point. We are told that: “Jacob came to Isaac his father to Mamre, to Kiriat-arba–the same is Hebron–where Abraham and Isaac sojourned. And the days of Isaac were a hundred and fourscore years. And Isaac expired, and died, and was gathered unto his people, old and full of days; and Esau and Jacob his sons buried him. (Genesis 35: 27-29)

The ‘deathbed scene’ of passing on the special blessing with its accompanying promise of covenantal relationship with God had taken place many years earlier apparently, when his sons were much younger, and Isaac had seemed more concerned with getting a good meal than with the business of settling the family inheritance after his death. “And it came to pass, that when Isaac was old, and his eyes were dim, so that he could not see, he called Esau his elder son, and said to him: ‘My son’; and he said unto him: ‘Here am I.’ And he said: ‘Behold now, I am old, I know not the day of my death. Now therefore take thy weapons, thy quiver and thy bow, and go out to the field, and take me venison; and make me savoury food, such as I love, and bring it to me, that I may eat; that my soul may bless you before I die’ (Gen 27:1-4)

Isaac did not take the responsibility to ensure that things would transition smoothly after his death; he did not call both his sons to his bedside in order to deliver the blessing, but set up a complicated process that in retrospect looks almost wilfully negligent. The outcome was that the boys were set against each other, that Jacob fled and was away for at least fourteen years, and that the doubt as to his legitimacy as heir to his father’s blessing threads through the narrative as he battles angels and debates with God and we are left wondering what was Isaac’s intention in asking “who are you, my son?”

Isaac did not model himself on his own father who had many more children with Keturah after Sarah’s death, but about whom we are told “And Abraham gave all that he had to Isaac. But to the sons of the concubines that Abraham had, Abraham gave gifts; and he sent them away from Isaac his son while he yet lived, eastward, to the east country” (Gen 25:6 )Abraham protected Isaac from inheritance claims and also arranged his marriage into a powerful and protective family (Gen 24:1ff)

And now we have the deathbed arrangements of Jacob, and what a difference as he plans and calculates! First he speaks to Joseph, and he asks that he not be buried in Egypt but with his own father in the Cave of Machpela at Mamre. Then as he declines further, Joseph visits again with his own two sons, named for forgetting his past and for his successful life in Egypt. Jacob summons his strength to tell the story of the covenantal blessing, of the angel who had guarded him, of the death and burial of Joseph’s mother Rachel, adopts both the boys explicitly bringing them into the covenant blessing, and setting the younger (Ephraim) over the older (Manasseh). He gives Joseph what to all intents and purposes is his personal blessing, telling him that God will be with him and will bring him back to his ancestral land, and he offers something else that is outside of the covenant: “Moreover I have given to you one portion above your brothers, which I took out of the hand of the Amorite with my sword and with my bow.‘ (Gen:48:22)

And then finally he spoke to all the twelve sons together, twice telling them to assemble themselves together, and then offering individual blessings to each one. These are not the blessings of the covenant but clear assessments of their personalities and likely futures. Judah is singled out for praise and leadership, and Joseph is given what appears to be the major non-covenantal and personal blessing: “The blessings of your father are mighty beyond the blessings of my progenitors unto the utmost bound of the everlasting hills; they shall be on the head of Joseph, and on the crown of the head of the prince among his brethren.” And then he asks all his sons to make sure he will be buried in the ancestral graves in Machpela, and he too expires and, like Abraham and Isaac before him, he is “gathered to his people”.

It is an exemplary death. All the threads of his life are brought together – his funeral arrangements are made, and he asks ALL his children to take responsibility to take him to the burial site which will bring him – and them – back to his familial roots. He brings his two Egyptian grandchildren into the family fold, he resolves his relationship with Joseph in a number of ways not least taking the responsibility of being the parent rather than being a guest enjoying his son’s hospitality and giving his personal gift separately from the family inheritance. He brings all his sons together so that none have more information than the others, and he is absolutely clear about them and their fortunes in an open and formal setting of deathbed blessing. And having finished his speech he gets comfortably into the bed and he dies.

Many years later we are told a similar story – the death of Rabbi Judah haNasi whom we know to have been in terrible pain and discomfort in his terminal state, but whose process of dying also encompasses the resolving of the important issues of his life. In the Babylonian Talmud we read “At the time of Rabbi’s death he said: I need my sons. His sons came to him and he told them “carefully observe the honour due to your mother……He said to them “I need the sages of Israel. The sages of Israel came to him and he said to them” Do not eulogise me in the towns. But establish a session after thirty days. Simon my son shall be Hacham, Gamliel my son shall be Nasi. Hanina bar Hama shall sit at the head of the Academy.  He said to them “I need my younger son” R. Simon came to him; He transmitted to him the tradition of wisdom. He said to them I need my older son. Rabban Gamliel came to him and he transmitted to him the orders of the patriarchate. ( Ketubot 103a-b)

Rabbi’s death was less peaceful than that of Jacob, indeed it took the intervention of a compassionate maid servant to help ease him from this world when she saw just how much pain he was in, but his thoughtful planning and the passing on of the legacy of his learning and leadership owe much to the story in Genesis. Only when Jacob completes the resolution of the family tensions at his deathbed, rather than hide from the challenge as his own father had done, does the story of lethal sibling rivalry that began with the very first brothers Cain and Abel and was demonstrated down the generations of the Book of Genesis, end. Judah HaNasi faced a similar problem – there was no clear successor of sufficient stature, so he gave to both his sons as well as to R.Hanina bar Hama a role and a title to go forward with. We know that the decentralisation of the rabbinic world began at this time, along with a flowering of other academies – -the new Academy and Patriarchate at Tiberius came to supersede the one at Sepphoris over time. But Judah haNasi did his best to prevent the splintering of authority and both his life and his death contributed to a smoother shift than might otherwise have been.

Most of us will not be leaving anything so valuable an inheritance as these figures, but we will all be leaving other important gifts and it is essential that we learn the lessons of dying well from wherever we can.

The lessons in our texts are a good place to start. To confront the reality that we will die, even if we don’t know when, so that we can plan and work in order to leave behind good relationships rather than complicated or destructive feelings.

The model to avoid is that of Isaac who surprisingly thought more about fulfilling his own immediate needs than smoothing the path for the future. Jacob the trickster cast aside his deceptiveness and spoke to each son individually in the presence of the others. Rabbi spoke with both the Sages of the Academy and then to each of his sons in order to prevent unseemly battles over leadership.

We none of us know the day of our death, but we can most certainly try to live our lives in such a way that we do not leave too much of a relationship mess behind us. If we truly lived as if we might die tomorrow we might say and do the things we should say and do now, and not say or do the things we imagine we can always sort out some time in the future while we focus on our own needs.

If we try to put things right each day, as if it is our last day and this our deathbed process, then we might leave less emotional mess behind. If we tell those we love that we love them, forgive those who hurt us, let people know our wishes -be it organ donation or special bequests; if we give back what we owe and plan for the future so that we do not leave others in the lurch, then we can leave the rest up to God and to the future that we can hope will take care of itself.

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