‘When Jacob had finished giving instructions to his sons, he drew his feet up into the bed, breathed his last and was gathered to his people.’ Gen. 49:33
This week we come to the end of the book of Genesis and the family narrative of the patriarchs and matriarchs. It is sad to see them pass. In the stories we read, they peopled our inner landscape for a while. Now they fade away, though not without trace. There may even be one last lesson to learn, of a ‘good death.’
A year ago, I was asked to deliver a shiur on this week’s parashah, Vayechi, which culminates in the death and burial of Jacob. This presented a challenge, as my mother had died a matter of weeks beforehand. I began to read through the verses, and found an opportunity to process and find some comfort. There was much about her death which resembled Jacob’s. What was it that was ‘good?’ Jacob is able to make his wishes known to all – his burial will be in the Cave of Machpelah, not in Egypt. There is time enough for Joseph to see his father and speak with him, introducing his own sons, Ephraim and Manasseh. All the brothers arrive, and are met as individuals. There is no pain at the end; rather Jacob slips away. Grief is expressed openly and readily, at least by Joseph. Funeral arrangements are quickly made and likely obstacles negotiated, namely Pharaoh and any desire to retain either the living or dead in the land. An accommodation is reached between cultural observances – Jacob is embalmed – and religious ones, with a seven-day period of mourning preceding the burial. Finally, the brothers carry Jacob’s body to the cave and lay him to rest together. At the most important moment, the family becomes a functional one. The past is not forgotten – it is simply no longer of consequence, outweighed by the stark reality which confronts them.
How is all this achieved? It is neither by chance nor through the actions of one person. Joseph shows leadership, as we have come to expect from him. He listens to his father, then reframes his words to Pharaoh, as the Bible commentator, Nehama Leibowitz, notes. It is not Egypt which is the problem, it is the fact that Jacob has prepared a grave for himself in Canaan, as any Egyptian notable would understand. Joseph invokes the oath made to his father and his service to Pharaoh, and his appeal can hardly be refused. He knows the court, in a way his brothers cannot. Yet, he represents them all there. Indeed, we can imagine the eleven standing alongside him. The family comes together to accomplish the task at hand, which even Joseph cannot do alone, and is strengthened through that task.
The experience of being with their father as he dies is perhaps at the centre of all this. They share it equally, none of greater status than the other. They are all his sons. Sensitive to this, each is accorded a moment of intimacy, and manages to bear his often difficult words. His final instructions are put to them as a whole; no favourite is singled out at the last. How different from the past! How far the family has come.
It is a fortunate person who has a ‘good death.’ There are so many bad ones. Slow, lingering, degrading deaths. Violent, premature ones. To die peacefully at the end of a long life, surrounded by one’s children and grandchildren, in the presence of love, is a privilege not enjoyed by all. For the family, it is traumatic, nevertheless. It is the most natural thing in the world to be born, to live and to die. We know it is our final destination. Yet, to watch someone, a father, a mother, close their eyes for the last time, to be there one moment and gone the next, is very strange. To share final words and looks, knowing the end is approaching, is even harder. No wonder Joseph falls upon Jacob and weeps. And where did he go, that which was more than his body? It is interesting that even in this early period, mention is made of ‘being gathered up to his people.’ This surely means more than joining them in a cave in Hebron. To be there at the end is to truly see something essential take flight and depart. It is gentle, it is peaceful and it is very sad.
The phrase ‘a good death’ works less well a year later. It is still a comfort and will remain so. However, it doesn’t compensate for the absence, which is bearable and unbearable simultaneously. I will settle on ‘a better death’ or ‘the best death one could hope for.’ Another factor is of more relevance. Jacob describes the years of his life as ‘few and evil’ in an earlier chapter (47:9). We may or may not agree. Ultimately, it is not the manner of our death which counts, but how we live. We can hope for a good end, and do a certain amount to achieve it for ourselves, while acknowledging that we are in the hands of others and of God. For those of us supporting loved ones as they die, there is much we can do, in terms of how we respond, conducting ourselves in a way which will honour the dead and the dying, being the best people we can be, which will owe so much to them, now and always.
Student Rabbi Nathan Godleman
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.