Two good things are near to you and far from you,
far from you and near to you:
Repentance is near to you and far from you,
far from you and near to you.
Death is near to you and far from you,
far from you and near to you.
– Kohelet Rabbah 8.17
In parashat VaYehi we read of the death of Jacob, who according to our ancient tradition had at least 13 children (although there is a midrash that states that with each of the 12 songs, a twin sister was born!). The scene is classic: all the offspring gathered around the deathbed.
Many of us will have the opportunity to be at the deathbed of a beloved relative; grandparent, parent, sibling, friend, or, has v’halilah, an offspring. In these moments we feel the pull to be present, and in Jewish tradition it is important to reassure the soul that it will be okay although its lifelong envelope is expiring.
Often it seems that there is something we want to hear – or to say. But how?
It will come to each of us. Imagine the moment when those who love you gather around you as you are dying, looking for some meaningful word. In our parashah, the Torah relates the mixed blessing that ensued when the Patriarch Jacob summoned his children to his deathbed.
Gather yourselves together and I will tell you what will happen to you in the End of Days. Assemble yourselves and listen, o children of Jacob; listen to Israel your father. (Genesis 49.1-2)
Jacob did not know how to begin, but began anyway. In his opening words we can hear what he wanted to say. He wanted his children to stay together, to remain an “assembly” that listened to their parents and together carried on the meaning of their lives.
The dying man begins to speak, and his opening words are not pleasant, but they are honest. He gives voice in these moments to that which usually goes unspoken, too difficult to say. It’s not easy: at one point he cries out, “O G*d, I wait for your salvation!” (Genesis 49.18)
After his death, his son Joseph kisses him; in Hebrew kiss is neshek – and it is also armor, which leads us to ask. If there will be a moment of neshek, what will it mean in your life and your death?
The deathbed moment in Jewish tradition may occur long before the moment of death. It is a moment of recognizing, or avoiding, the relationships that matter. You choose the neshek: will your life end with armor, or a kiss? Will you and those around you shrink away from the risks of honesty and openness, and keep your emotional armor strong? Or will you manage to reach through the patterns, and the fear, toward the closeness of the kiss?
Jacob wished to bless his children, but was in doubt whether he ought to bless them since they had caused him so much pain… He turned his eyes and heart heavenwards, and cried out whatever G*d would put in his mouth to say. (Mei haShiloakh commentary on Bereshit Rabbah)
Those with the most unfinished business have the most difficult time with death. One waits all one’s life for someone to say I love you; one never does ask about a long-ago heartache, because it was too painful to bring up, and so the ache remains. There is hesitation on both sides, and why, anyway, expect the pattern of a lifetime to be overcome, just because death is near?
Jacob speaks to each of his children of the choices that have already defined the life of that child for good or for ill. There’s no guarantee that deathbed honesty will change someone’s life. But at the very least, Jacob’s gift to his children meant that they were not left to wonder, all their lives long, what dad might have said.
May this Shabbat be one on which you are able to contemplate Eternity and your precious place in it, and what your life means not only to you but to all those with whom you share meaningful community.