Ha’azinu – what might we say and write when we confront our own mortality?

Moses knows he is going to die.  Not in the way we all ‘know’ we are going to die, the coldly logical knowledge that doesn’t impact on our emotions in any way, but in the way that some people who are very close to death know with a certainty that no longer expresses itself as fear or self-pity but with a clarity and sense of purpose.

I have sat at many deathbeds. I have seen denial and also acceptance, whimpering pain and alert peacefulness, sudden startling requests – for toast, for touch, for people long gone, for non-existent sounds or lights to be turned off or up.  What I have learned is that we none of us know how we shall die, how our last days and hours will be, but that at many, if not most of the deathbeds I have observed where there is some time for the process to be worked through, there is an opportunity to express what is most important to the dying person, to project themselves one last time into the world.

It is human to want to survive. Life wants to continue despite pain or confusion or fear. Even when a person seems prepared and ready for death there is often a moment where there is a struggle to continue in this world. Even Hezekiah who famously “turned his face to the wall” having been told that he must set his house in order for he would die and not live, then prays to remind God that he has done God’s will with his whole heart, and weeps sorely.   His prayer (found in Isaiah 38) resonates today “In the noontide of my days I shall go to the gates of the nether world, I am deprived of the residue of my years…. O God, by these things we live, and altogether therein is the life of my spirit; so recover Thou me, and make me to live.”

It doesn’t matter at what age we come to death – we want more life, we want to go on in some meaningful way, we want to be part of the future.

We all know we will die. We share death with all who have ever lived and all who will ever be. We may fear the how or the when, but generally we get on with life as if death is not real. And we don’t plan for how we might continue to be a part of the future, for how our life may make a difference for our having lived it, or for how or what might be remembered of our existence.

Yet sometimes we are forced to confront our own mortality. And when that happens, these questions demand to be asked.

The whole period of the Days of Awe which are now coming to a close forces us to acknowledge our own transience in this world.  Be it the wearing of the kittel we shall don for the grave, the taking out of a whole day from time to focus on how we are living our lives in order to reset and readjust our behaviours, or the saying of yizkor prayers and visiting the graves of our families. Be it the autumnal edge we feel as we shiver in the sukkah, or the browning and falling of the leaves, or the daylight hours shortening perceptibly – we are viscerally aware of the darkness that is coming, the lessening outer energy alongside the power of the interior life.

Sometimes this knowledge that we will inevitably cease to be in this world brings out a search for meaning, for a sense of self that will transcend the physicality of our existence. Sometimes we become engrossed in our own personal wants and needs, sometimes we look further outwards towards our family and our relationships, sometimes we gaze further out towards our community or we look further in time to see what will be after we have gone.  I think often of the story of Moses in the yeshiva of Akiva (BT Menachot 29b), comforted by seeing that Rabbi Akiva is citing him as the source of the teaching being given, even though he does not understand anything of the  setting that is 1500 years after his own life.  It is a story of not being forgotten, of projecting values down the generations. Talmud also tells us that R. Yochanan said that when a teaching is transmitted with the name of its author, then the lips of that sage “move in the grave” (BT Sanhedrin 90b.  Rabbinic Judaism gives great honour to the idea that we live on in the teachings we offered, but also in the memories of those who choose to remember us. It is commonplace in the Jewish world to be named for a dead relative in order to honour their memory, to tell stories about them long after the hearers (or even the tellers) have a first-hand memory of the person, to fast on the day of their yahrzeit (anniversary of their death) as well as to light a 24 hour candle and to say the kaddish prayer.

So it is time for us to give serious thought about how we project ourselves into the future, what we pass on in terms of life lessons, the stories people will tell about us, how they will remember us, how they will carry on the values that we have cared about enough for them to see and for them to choose too.

All rabbis have stories of sitting with the dying as these desires clarify. One colleague has I think the ultimate cautionary tale of being asked to come out to a deathbed of a woman he barely knew, a long way out from where he lived, in terrible weather, and sent in the form of a demand. Deciding that he must go but unsure of what was wanted, he collected together a number of different prayer books to be able to offer her the spiritual succour she wanted. Her final wish was that her daughter in law would not inherit her fur coat. She was taking her feud past the grave.  I remember the woman who sat in bed in her hospice writing letters to everyone in her life, beautiful letters – but she refused to actually see any of the people she was writing to. I remember the people who made great efforts to right wrongs and those who tried to comfort the people left behind. I think with love of the woman who sent an audio file with her message that she had had a wonderful life with the right man and they were not to grieve, even though her death seemed unfairly early. I think of the woman who, having lost her fiancé in the war, proudly told me she was going back to her maker virgo intacta, and the woman who told me of her abortion while she was hiding in Nazi Germany, and her belief that the child had visited her alongside its father who died some years later.

Many a personal secret has been recounted at a deathbed, but often having been released from the power of that secret if there is time, the soul continues its journey in this world, and suddenly all sorts of things come into perspective. And it is these stories that I remember with such love and that have had such great impact on me.  The stories that people had hidden from their nearest and dearest but which explain so much of who they are and why they have done what they did. Their belief that they were not loved enough which led to them thinking they were not able to love as much as they wanted. Their umbilical connection to Judaism that they had not lived out publicly for fear of what might happen to them or their children should anti-Semitism return as virulently as they remembered in their youth.  Their subsequent horror that children and grandchildren were not connected to their Jewish roots, and their guilt at having weakened this chain. There are multiple examples but what I see again and again is the need for good relationships with others, for human connection with others , for expressing warmth and love and vulnerability, the need for living according to clear and thoughtful moral values, and for a sense of deep identity that passes from generation to generation and connects us to the other in time.

Moses in sidra Haazinu is just like any other human being, wanting his life not to be wasted but to be remembered, wanting his stories and his values to be evoked in order to pass on what is important to the generations that will come after him, however they may use them.  He needs to be present in their lives, albeit not in a physical way.  The whole of the book of Deuteronomy has been his way of reminding, of chivvying, of recalling and reimagining the history he has shared with the people of Israel. He uses both carrot and stick, he uses prose and poetry, he is both resigned and deeply angry, he is human.

There is a biblical tradition of the deathbed blessing, a blessing which describes not only what is but also what is aspirational.  Rooted in that has come the idea of the ethical will to pass on ideas, stories and thoughts to the next generation of one’s family, a tradition that has found a home also in reminiscence literature.  Sometimes we find out much more about the person who has died from their letters and diaries than they ever expressed  in life – and often we mourn that it is now too late to ask the questions that emerge from these, or to apologise or explain ourselves.

As the days grow shorter and we have spent time mulling over how we are living our lives and trying to match them to how we want our lives to have looked once we see them from the far end, we could take a leaf out of Moses’ life’s work in Deuteronomy and write our own life story, not just the facts but the stories around them, how we understood them, what we learned.  Next year we might write it differently, but what a rich choice lies in front of us, to explore what is really important to us and to ensure that it, like us, will live on.

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.

Parashat Vayechi

On Friday evenings it is traditional to bless our children before making Kiddush. We place our hands on the head of each child, and for boys we say, “May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.” For girls we say “May God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.” And for all the children we add the Priestly Blessing, asking for God’s protection, blessing, and grace.

The biblical source for blessing sons at Kiddush comes from today’s parashah. A short time before Jacob dies, he meets Joseph’s children, his grandsons, and in an emotional scene, he says (Genesis 48:20): “By you shall Israel invoke blessings, saying: ‘God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh…'” And so the Jewish people have been using that invocation to bless their children for centuries.

But the content of the blessing to Ephraim and Manasseh actually comes before Jacob speaks to them and the blessing seems to be given to their father initially – in verses 15 and 16, the Torah records: “And he [Jacob] blessed Joseph, saying, ‘The God in Whose ways my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, the God Who has been my shepherd from my birth to this day – The Angel who has redeemed me from all harm – Bless the lads. In them may my name be recalled, and the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac, and may they be teeming multitudes upon the earth.'”

If this is a blessing for Ephraim and Manasseh, why does the text say, “And he blessed Joseph“?

The medieval commentator Nachmanides provides one answer: “. . .Jacob really wanted to bless his beloved Joseph;  and out of his love for Joseph, Jacob blessed his sons”.  And the 17th c scholar and kabbalist Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz comments: “[Jacob blessed Joseph] in order to show that there is no greater blessing for a father than the wish that his children should take after him and become good people”.

Whatever the reason, Joseph, Ephraim and Manasseh were all blessed by Jacob.

The language that he uses in his interaction with the Egyptian influenced Joseph and his completely Egyptian sons is interesting. From his perspective at the end of life, Jacob understands that God has been his Shepherd from his birth and throughout his life, watching over him during his difficult physical and emotional journeys. And so he wishes for Ephraim and Manasseh that same sense of protection and security. Nachmanides  suggests that the word for shepherd, “ro’eh“, may be related to the word “ray’ah“, friend and that in referring to God as “ro’eh,” Jacob is also wishing the blessings of  friendship on Ephraim and Manasseh.

The image of the Angel, who “has redeemed me from all harm” is traditionally understood literally – Jacob certainly has encountered redeeming angels in his lifetime (on the ladder at Beit El when he left home precipitously, and at the Ford of Jabok the night before meeting Esau when he returned home after 20 years), but ultimately an angel is a messenger of God, and as Rashi understands it, it was God whowas with Jacob in his times of trouble. And this, then, is the particular blessing for Ephraim and Manasseh: that God should be with them, protecting them, encouraging them and supporting them in their times of trouble.

The third portrayal: “The God in Whose ways my father Abraham and Isaac walked” is seen as more than just descriptive to 13th Century scholar David Kimchi (Radak).  To him “Walking with God” means serving God in heart and deed, and Radak believes that the root of this service is in the heart. Jacob is thus understood to be praying that Ephraim and Manasseh walk in God’s ways, in their thoughts, intentions, sincerity and day-to-day deeds. What God wants from them should never be far from their minds.

And finally, Jacob prays (Genesis 48:16): “In them may my name be recalled, and the names of my fathers, Abraham and Isaac, and may they be teeming multitudes upon the earth.”Nachmanidestells us that this means that for Ephraim and Manasseh “their descendants and their names should exist forever, and the name of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob should forever be upon them.”

All these traditional understandings give us a rich insight into what was in the mind of Jacob, – he was blessing both the oldest son of his beloved wife Rachel and also the descendants of that son with the friendship and nurturing of God, with the protection and encouragement of God, and with the ability to serve God with complete sincerity, and these are things we want for all our children.

But what is so special about Ephraim and Manasseh that we pray to make our children like them? The Torah itself gives us shockingly little information about these two brothers, the sons of Jacob’s favourite son, Joseph, and Joseph’s Egyptian wife, Asenat. We know that they lived their entire lives in Egypt, that Manasseh is the older of the two (although some scholars suggest they might have been twins), that they were born before the famine came to Egypt, and that Genesis and Chronicles disagree a bit about whether one of Manasseh’s descendants was his son or grandson. Otherwise, all we have are conjectures based on this one scene at their grandfather’s deathbed.

What was Jacob thinking? What was he doing in adopting Joseph’s two sons as his own and effectively transgressing the generational boundary? And why, after adopting them in verse 5, does he suddenly notice them in verse 8 and ask, “Who are these?”

Jacob is altering the system of inheritance in so many ways in this action – he in effect disinherits Joseph in favour of the two grandchildren, who each become a sort of half-tribe. And then he crosses over his arms while blessing the boys, symbolizing the reversal of the usual pattern of bestowing the greater blessing on the older son. Joseph – the older brother of Rachel’s two boys – protests, but Jacob—a younger brother himself, is happy to subvert the position of the older brother.  He’ll bless in his own way, giving priority to the younger son as he himself took priority from his older brother. The scene is reminiscent of his own parental blessing, when his blind father also asked

 who it was who was to be blessed, but here everything is explicit and open. It seems that this blessing is less about God acting as supporter, nurturer and protector, and more about the people doing the blessing and those accepting the blessing.

So why Ephraim and Manasseh? Perhaps because they were the first children who had to maintain their identity in a foreign land. Or perhaps because they were the first brothers in the Bible to get along peaceably … Now that siblings have learned to get along, the story of the Jewish people can move to the next stage.

In our time, Rabbi Harold Kushner sees a blessing that is surely relevant for ourselves and our children today: When we say to our children that we would like them to be like Ephraim and Manasseh, two Egyptian born and raised young men, who are yet able to be part of the family of Israel, we are maybe asking for them to maintain their Jewish identities while living fully within our non-Jewish society. May they be like Ephraim and Manasseh, living complex lives with integrity, being fully themselves.

Kushner also sees a blessing in the boys’ relationship with each other. He suggests they become a source of blessing “because they were the first brothers in the Bible to have a good relationship, after the conflicts that marred the lives of Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, and Joseph and his brothers.” So it’s possible the blessing of Ephraim and Manasseh is one of peace and acceptance. When Jacob crosses his hand to bestow the greater blessing on the younger boy, neither boy complains (although their father does). They accept the blessing they are given, and given the lack of a story of brotherly strife, we assume it did not harm their relationship.

Whatever is behind the blessing of Ephraim and Manasseh, the blessing that we are to repeat to our own sons each week – whether it is an incantation designed to protect our children by calling on God to care for them, or an aspiration that they will grow to live their lives in harmonious relationships, or that they will understand their complex identities in a diverse world, or a formula to remind them of their place in the chain of tradition that connects them to both ancestors and descendants – this is a complex and beautiful ritual.

The blessing to Joseph and his sons is wonderful, and a stark contrast to the blessings Jacob will bestow on his own sons shortly before his death. He must have looked into the future of his grandchildren and seen for them a world where they would carry the message and the memory of the patriarchal promise, the covenant with God. While we may wonder what exactly Jacob understood and hoped for his grandchildren, we should take the opportunity to think too about what we pray for today when we bless our own children. What do we want for our children and what do we want for the children of our community and our society?  

While we live, we can invoke and provide a blessing for the next generations. How we choose to do it is up to us.