D’var Torah: Vayechi

Illustration by Owen Jones from "The History of Joseph and His Brethren" (Day & Son, 1869). Scanned and archived at www.OldBookArt.com where it was marked as Public Domain.
Jacob’s Funeral Procession. Illustration by Owen Jones from “The History of Joseph and His Brethren” (Day & Son, 1869). Scanned and archived at www.OldBookArt.com where it was marked as Public Domain.

Genesis 47:28 – 50:26

18 Tevet 5781

“ … and he asked them to Gather Round …”

Throughout the horrible COVID-19 pandemic, I have often quoted from Gilda Radner’s Autobiography, It’s Always Something, where Gilda Radner wrote, “I wanted a perfect ending.”

Gilda Radner, a Brilliant Jewish funny woman, original cast member of Saturday Night Live, had her life cut short abruptly in 1989 at the age of 42 from the misery of ovarian cancer. Sometimes we refer to “The Perfect Ending” as “The Hollywood Ending,” because it has become more common in film life than in real life.

“G-d is in the details,” is a saying often attributed to (Ludwig) Mies van der Rohe,” the architect responsible for many of Chicago’s classic buildings. Because of the details, you can see Chicago’s stunning silhouette, its skyline, its panoramic overview. I ask you to consider Parsha Vayechi in the same way for a change, not in the details but in the panoramic overview of the big lessons that transpire here.

Both Jacob and Joseph will die in this parsha, the main characters leaving the stage, the book of Genesis ends. As they die, they ask their children to “Gather Round,” and the children do Gather Round. The Big Stories is that the patriarchs give blessings to the offspring and how they give the blessings. However, an even bigger blessing, in my opinion, is that all the children actually do Gather Round the dying father, that the dying father gives final wishes, and that the children actually do follow the wishes of the dying patriarch.

Thanatologists like me, a hospital chaplain who is a player in more end-of-life moments than in births, we see much more often than we want, a concept in chaplaincy we term “grief-driven fights.” Estrangement can begin when life ends.

As Vayechi opens, this family’s estrangement has already rectified, Joseph revealed himself to his brothers, and dad Jacob came down to Egypt, the land of his successful son Joseph, and Jacob lived in Egypt for 17 years. Then, Jacob knew he was to die, he requested that the children Gather Round, and they did. What is the first thought on Jacob’s mind?  It is not blessing the next generation. It is articulating Jacob’s own desire: “And then the time of Israel drew near that he was to die, he sent to call his son Joseph, and said unto him:  If now I have found grace in in thy eyes … I pray thee, … bury me not in Egypt … but when I shall lie with my fathers, thou shalt carry me out of Egypt, and bury me in their burying-place. … and [Joseph] answers, “I will do as thou has said.”

Notice the use of the plural here, I want to lie with my fathers, not I want to lie with my father. The meaning of family can be just as strong after death than during life … if we work at it. In 2017 and 2018, the Pew Research Center, which continually does excellent and respected research, gave us a major insight, a study titled, Where Americans Find Meaning in Life. By far, the response mentioned most often, 69% of the time, was “family.” As Pew pointed out, “religion is second to family as ‘most important’ source of meaning in lives of American adults.”

For 30 years, I was the volunteer manager of the Jewish cemeteries in Tallahassee, Florida, owned by Temple Israel. It was a microcosm of Jewish cemeteries everywhere. When the cemeteries were young and graves were plentiful, a member would purchase a “family plot,” perhaps three rows of four spaces each, a neat dozen, dreaming that future generations would be nuclear families, loving each other, and they would all want to “lie with their fathers.” Then, we began to notice “abandoned spaces.” The children did not want the spaces.

At the same time, within the last 20-40 years, American sociologists were developing theories on the loss of the “kin keeper” amid the loss of the family. The “kin keeper” was the member we used to have in every family who planned how to gather everyone together for seder, for Thanksgiving, for reunions. The death of the “kin keeper” of today also meant the loss of the “kin keeper” of tomorrow, as the children were not interested in assuming the mantle. And, so, the family concept continued to decline.

Before COVID-19, we were already tackling the epidemic of loneliness and its siblings, isolation and despair. On Nov. 30, 2020, as I was drafting this d’var torah, the editorial board of The New York Times pleaded, “Nursing Home Patients are Dying of Loneliness:  As the vaccine rolls out in nursing homes, more visits would be allowed.”

One of the “proof texts” for The New York Times editorial was “Chronic loneliness increases the odds of an early death by about 20%, according to the 2008 book Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection.”

Some of what tourism theorists term “pent-up demand” burst forth in the holiday travel surges, not to resorts, but to family. Epidemiologists correlate it to surges in COVID-19, but it still illustrates that the power of the family is strong enough to be sustained.

The reflection of this magnetic power of the family takes us right back to the conundrum of the title of this parsha, Vayechi, and its similarity to parsha Chaye Sarah. Earlier, we study the death of Sarah in a parsha titled “The Life of Sarah.” This week, we study the deaths of Jacob, and then of Joesph, in a parsha titled Vayechi, translated as “And he lived” (myjewishlearning.com) or “And there was (still) life” (shabes.net).

When the history of the COVID-19 pandemic is written, and we pray we may be able to look back on it soon, my chapter will be that the most challenging role I have played in this pandemic has been facilitating goodbye visits. This scene played out the way Vayechi plays out that the children gathered around Jacob, with two notable exceptions:  1) the number of visitors is regulated to a minimum; and 2) sadly, the patients have not been capable of articulating their final wishes, if and how they want to be gathered to their fathers. Rabbi Stanley Garfein, when he was with Temple Israel of Tallahassee, used to title his annual Yom Kippur Yizkor sermon, “Finish Your Unfinished Business.”

Let Jacob of parsha vayechi be a role model. Gather your close ones around. Then tell them your final desires. Before you give them final blessings, let them give you the final blessing of honoring your final plans. Teach them about your fathers/mothers/role models, and how you want to be gathered unto them.

And, so, with Vayechi we complete the Book of Genesis, with the traditional:  Chazak Chazak V’nitzchazek; Be Strong, Be Strong and Let Us Be Strengthened.

Ken yehi ratzon (may it be G-d’s will)

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