Friday, December 13, 2013

Parashat Vayechi - 'Tis a Fearful Thing

            This week’s Torah and Haftarah portions tell us a lot about how our patriarchs and ancestors thought about death. Early in our Torah portion of Vayechi, the Torah says that “the time drew near for Israel to die,” and when Jacob summons his son Joseph, he says, “I will lie with my fathers … and you shall carry me to their grave.” The medieval commentator Rashi makes sure to point out to us that if Jacob had said, “I will lie beside or next to my fathers” then it would be unnecessary to say, “you shall carry me to their grave,” because then it would be obvious Jacob means physically next to them. By saying “I will lie WITH my fathers… and you shall carry me to their grave,” Rashi is letting us know that “with” means that Jacob knows his time of death is near, and he knows he will be reunited with his loved ones in the world to come, and also, he’d like his physical resting place to be in the family plot.
            Similarly, with the Haftarah this week, the text says, “And the days of David drew near that he should die; and he charged Solomon, his son, saying: ‘I go the way of all the earth; you shall be strong, therefore, and show yourself a man’.” It appears that King David also knew when his time was near, and although it doesn’t say anything about his faith in the world to come, as with Jacob, it shows that he is aware that death is a natural part of life. Both Jacob and David bless their children and pass on a sort of living ethical will. They have hope for the future of the Jewish people in the next generation and they appear to die in peace. Even Joseph, whose death scene at the end of the parasha is much quicker, appears to know when he is dying, and he takes the time to tell his brothers that G-d will surely remember them and return them to their land, and that they should take his remains with them when they go, as he also would like to be buried in the family plot.
            Our prayer book has many great poems and readings in its section for the Mourner’s Kaddish. Among them, is one that says:
It is a fearful thing
to love what death can touch.
A fearful thing
to love, hope, dream:
to be--
to be,
And oh! to lose.
A thing for fools, this,
a holy thing,
a holy thing
to love.
For your life has lived in me,
your laugh once lifted me,
your word was gift to me.
To remember this brings a painful joy.
'Tis a human thing, love,
a holy thing,
to love
what death has touched.
I know death can be a difficult topic. It can be a scary and painful part of life, but as King David acknowledged, it is a part of life. Sometimes it is natural, and sometimes it is unfair, and it is almost always very sad. When I was eleven, my uncle David died at about this time of year. Though it was technically a natural cause, it was sudden and he was young. This past week was his birthday, and in two more will be his deathday and this was his favorite time of year. So he’s on my mind a lot throughout every December, although less and less each year. To remember him, this thing that is impossible to not do, brings a painful joy. But it is a holy and human sort of painful joy to remember our loved ones who have passed. It is, as King David said, the way of the world, and we pray and hope that they are all with their other loved ones who went before them, as Jacob says. I pray and hope that none of you have to feel that sort of pain anytime soon, and that in the meantime, I pray and hope that you all be sure to tell each other how much you care about one another, and what sort of life you want the other to have. Teach these lessons and give these blessings every day, because unlike Jacob, Joseph, and David, we don’t always know when the time draws near to give those final speeches. May the memories of our loved ones live among us, instructing us on our way of living, helping to find meaning in the mystery of eternal life. And may G-d grant us all peace. Amen and Shabbat Shalom. 

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