I once visited a woman who had been told she only had a few more weeks to live. She said to me “I have had a long and happy life and I’d just as soon go right now rather than stay here waiting for death.” I asked her if she would like to use the time before her to tell her family anything and she said “No. I’ve already told them everything. They know how much I love them.” Her family gathered around her in love and support and she went to sleep. She stayed asleep most of the time, waking once a while to ask with great irritation why she was still alive then fall back to sleep. She passed within a few days. When we buried her, her family felt great peace. They did in fact already know how much she loved them and loved her and her strength of will in return.
We each face death in our own way. The midrash suggests that Jacob requested illness before his death so as to gather his family and his thoughts in the days and weeks before he passed. (Bereshit Rabbi 97) Jacob’s is the first death scene described in the Torah. He gathers all his sons around him to prophesize their future and to bless them. Abraham’s death is described simply in Gen 25:7. Abraham breathed his last, died at a ripe old age, contented, and was gathered to his kin. The texts describes that he left everything to Isaac, having given his other children gifts while still alive. There is no deathbed farewell. Isaac is described as being old with dim eyes when he calls Esau in to bless him. There is no mention of death. Even though Jacob steals his brother’s blessing, it is quite a while before Isaac passes away. Jacob is the first to know he is dying and to make use of the information to “put his affairs in order.”
The first action Jacob takes is to ensure he will be buried with his ancestors in the land of Canaan, in the family plot. His words are very carefully used. His greeting to Joseph demonstrates great respect to the Pharoah’s second in command, asking him for a “favor” (Gen 37:29) and “bowing” to him from his bed. (Gen 37:31) He then asks Joseph to swear to him that he will bury him with his ancestors (Gen 39:30), in the cave of Machpelah, in Canaan.( Gen 51:30) The wording is important, as Joseph must ask Pharoah’s permission to leave Egypt. Pharoah’s response confirms this “You may go because you promised on oath (Gen 50:6). Jacob has engineered all this with care. He is an old man, dim of sight, living under his son’s protection in a foreign land. He is without the patriarchal power of the past. Yet he uses words to give him power and create this reality. (Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg,The Beginning of Desire p.353)
Having established he will be cared for according to his will after death, Jacob gathers his sons around him to offer them his last words. It is an odd set of final statements for a father to make to his children. To Reuven, Simon, and Levi, his words are scathing. His words to his other sons fall somewhere between poetic description and opaque prophesy. As he concludes his words to each individual son, he ties them all together, pronouncing them the twelve tribes of Israel. Here finally the word blessing is used, not once but three times: “All these were the tribes of Israel, twelve of them, and these were the words with which their father blessed them, each man according to his blessing, he blessed them.” (Gen 49:28) The Jewish Publication Society, my favorite English translation, refuses to use the word blessing at all, translating instead “he bade them farewell with appropriate parting words.” Their reason for the translation: “not all the tribes received blessing.” Alternatively, a midrash suggests while at first Jacob blesses some sons and not others, in the end he blesses them all in unity. He knows they war with each other, that they are human and stubborn and so he ties them all together in this blessing and has them “suckle from one another.” (Pesikta Rabbati 7:9) Aviva Zornberg suggests he is trying to influence his children and their future in this speech, offering them a path to rely on one another in their differences rather than fight. (The Beginning of Desire p.364)
Perhaps most fascinating, is the interpretation that Jacob is trying to tell his sons the future, to give them a prophesy, the future of Israel until the end of days and the final glory of God, but is blocked. Vayechi is the only parshah with no “blank space” to announce it’s beginning in the Torah. Each Torah scroll is written carefully by hand, and each weekly parashah has a blank space before, making it easier for the Torah reader to find, and announcing it’s distinct importance. Vayechi, the final portion in Genesis, has no blank space, no blanks at all between it’s beginning and the words of the prior portion. Rashi, in his commentary, suggests lack of blank space is a physical block. The parashah text is physically blocked in by lack of space. Rashi (11th c France) offers two answer, one national, the other personal and spiritual. The first suggest that when Israel died, Bnei Israel, living in exile, were blocked: They closed their eyes and hearts to seeing God fully. Rashi’s second explanation interprets the block as Jacob being blocked from seeing or revealing to his sons his vision of the end of days. Israel’s sons stand at the precipice of the first exile, their enslavement in Egypt the paradigm for all future exiles. Jacob sees this and wants to share it with them, to ease the waiting for generations to come, but as he opens his mouth to speak, is blocked. Instead of providing the vision for all of Israel’s future, his words to each of his sons reveal only a partial truth.
Rashi suggests that in the moment Jacob begins to share the divine illumination with his sons, the shechinah leaves him, and he is blocked, left in darkness. Rambam (12th c Spain) further extrapolates that Jacob has a life history of losing the shechinah in times of darkness. While Jacob mourned Joseph, thinking him dead, he was melacholy and God’s presence left him. When Jacob and Joseph were reunited in Egypt, Jacob, “lived again” (vayechi – Jacob LIVED for 17 years in Egypt) and the shechinah returned to him. In Rambam’s view, depression, lethargy, melancholy keep us from achieving our full human potential, and block prophecy, or connection to God. Aviva Zornberg suggests something of Jacob’s light flickers at his end, losing him God’s presence. He is blocked. This block is released in his final words, “All these were the tribes of Israel, twelve of them, and these were the words with which their father blessed them, each man according to his blessing, he blessed them.” (Gen 49:28). Somehow in his words to each son, replete with images of nature and water he finds the fluidity and light to reconnect with God and to make his final words ones of true prophecy: You are the twelve tribes of Israel, united in blessing. (Beginning of Desire, p 360-365)
How much of our children’s and grandchildren’s lives can we influence with our words. What blessings and prophecies can we leave them? Gluckel of Hamelin (17-18th c Germany) has been a role model to generations in the ethical will she left her children. In her carefully recorded journal, she used stories of her life to ask her children to remember the mitzvot and live by their tradition. I love her motherly chidings, spoken from the grave, and now published, educating the many generations that followed. Like Jacob, her words have made her vision a reality. Like Jacob, her fondest wish was for her children to lean and depend on each other, making their differences, their strength in unity.
People often know when they are about to die and can take the opportunity to “put their house in order.” They have power to make a difference in their words to loved ones, those with them, and those who will follow in years to come. Tradition tells us that the shechinah sits by the head of those who are very ill, supporting them in courage and love. From this we can also take courage, and faith, that God is present for us. What we want most is to find acceptance, peace in the time before we are asked to leave this world. Through Jacob’s long blessing he moved from darkness to peace, and found again God’s presence in his life. We too can reach out to family and friends, and through connections of truth and love, find our way closer to God.