Shabbat VaYehi: Death and Love

It is far easier to talk about loss than it is to talk about love. It is easier to articulate the pain of love’s absence than to describe its presence and meaning in our lives. – bell hooks

I believe profoundly in the power of Torah learning to help us deepen our spiritual grounding and help us navigate our way through the challenges of our lives. This week, the learning is about death.

Our parashat hashavua opens with the death of Jacob and closes with the death of Joseph. Immersing ourselves in the learning of this parashah as we do every year in the depth of the darkest days of the year, Torah invites us to take advantage of the emotional doorway opened by long nights to overcome whatever reluctance we may have to confront this inescapable aspect of each of our lives.

“This too is Torah, and I need to learn it” – my own motto for approaching life – was first spoken by Rabbi Akiba, a Second Temple era sage who understood that Jews may gain vital insights for meaningful Jewish life from almost anywhere. The great bell hooks, who died this week, is my special Torah learning conduit for this parashah. Her musings upon love can help us articulate the innermost truth of our lives.

Everywhere we learn that love is important, and yet we are bombarded by its failure. In the realm of the political, among the religious, in our families, and in our romantic lives, we see little indication that love informs decisions, strengthens our understanding of community, or keeps us together. This bleak picture in no way alters the nature of our longing. We still hope that love will prevail. We still believe in love’s promise. – bell hooks, All About Love: New Visions, 2000

In our parashat hashavua, the children of this large family, our ancestors by whom we call ourselves the People of Israel, face each other in the moment of the death of Jacob. Not only the patriarch of the family, he is the weaver of the common cloth of their varied lives. His death brings them together to face their source and each other, their past and their doings. 

This deathbed scene is a moment of truth for each of them, and significantly unpleasant for some of the siblings, because the truth of their lives is brought forth and magnified. This is always possible and often true: when a loved one dies who is central to our sense of self, we are brought up against the truth of our lives in what may be a disturbing, even shocking way.

Death comes; all those we love will die, some before us, and some after us. We, too, will die, each of us, leaves dropping one by one from the Tree of Life, following no rhythm or rhyme that we can detect. 

The death of a parent is epochal. Jacob’s children are left to look at themselves and each other in a different way, with a new sense of agency. Will their lives change? Will the loss of the parental love – however it manifested itself there is always that expectation from the child – allow them to learn what it meant, and what love means in their lives and their acts? Will you?

learn more about death here – The Alef Bet of Death: Dying As A Jew

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