Vayechi 2021 (Bubby Myra Lives On)

This week’s portion, Vayechi, is the second portion in Genesis where the title is about the lives of biblical characters who, in fact, die within the telling of the narrative. 

Toward the beginning of Genesis we read Chayei Sarah, “The Life of Sarah", which recounts her death; and here, in Vayechi, which means, “And he lived”, we read about the final years, final days, and the deaths of both Jacob and Joseph. 

This tension between the title of the parasha - “he lived”, verses the reality, where, he died,calls us to examine both the way that Jacob & Joseph lived, along with the similar ways in which they approach their deaths.

Although there are many lessons we can draw from both Jacob and Joseph’s lives, where their relationships with family were often strained, 
though their relationship with God and with faith were solid, even remarkable, something happens at the end of Jacob’s life, which leaves us with an important message about what we should each strive to have at the end of our own lives.

When Jacob crosses his hands at the blessing of Joseph’s sons – where he lays his dominant hand on the head of the younger son, Rashi teaches that the Hebrew phrase used for “crossed his hands”,sachel et yadav, describes a cognitive, intentional act.

Some of us might recognise this language from the Hebrew term used to denote someone with intelligence – we say that they have sechel, wisdom. Similarly, Rabbi Sheldon Marder links this Hebrew phrase back to the very beginning of Torah, where the famous tree in the Garden of Eden was desirable, l’haskil, as a source of wisdom.

“These two sets of verses,” writes Rabbi Marder, “form an inclusion – a literary frame – around the Torah’s tale of human moral development.”
From the first human beings to the generation that takes the family of Israel, and sets them up to become the People of Israel, we quest for wisdom; and the greatest examples of our ancestors demonstrate it at the best moments, and often in the final moments of their lives.

Both Jacob and Joseph demonstrate a similar wisdom at the end of their lives.  They end their lives in similar ways, surrounded by their children, whom they bless, and to whom they give predictions about the future. 

Both of them also give instructions for where they want to be buried (not in Egypt!), how they want to be remembered, and their hopes that their children and future generations will keep the beliefs and traditions of the family alive, and remain faithful to God. 

Through the depictions of these two deaths, which mark the end of an age, and the end of our first book of the Torah, we are being taught a valuable lesson about how we can meaningfully manage our own end of life planning, by making sure to communicate our wishes, hopes, love, and our wisdom, to those we are leaving behind, so that they can honour our wishes, heed our wisdom, and aspire to fulfil our highest hopes. 

This is part of how we pass on our beliefs and values to the next generation – which any wise person knows is much more important than figuring out how to divide up our earthly goods. 

Last week, one of my oldest friend, Rachel’s, grandmother, Myra Sadowski, passed away. She was known as Bubby Myra by everyone who knew her, and indeed, all of us who grew up with her many grandchildren felt that we were included in the Bubby Myra tribe. 

Bubby Myra knew her life was coming to an end, and just like Jacob and Joseph, she surrounded herself with her loved ones in her final days, spending time with as many of them as she could, and making sure she was able to pass on special words to each of them. 

At her funeral, one of her granddaughters, Joanna, shared how Bubby Myra told her how happy she was that Joanna had found happiness, 
and she left her with these final words: “I love you, I love you, and I love you.” 

Since not all of us will be able to know, and plan for our deaths in this way, the wise message of Joseph, Jacob and Bubby Myra, is to make sure that we are communicating these words to our loved ones now, and that we continue to communicate them whenever we can, throughout whatever remains of our lives. 

Parashat Vayechi describes two significant deaths, but its real significance lies in its reminder to us: it is not just how we die that is  important, but also, vayechi, how we live, how we love, what wisdom we are able to gain, and whether or not we are able to pass that wisdom on. 

By ensuring that our loved ones are aware of our values, our hopes and our wishes – for them as well as for ourselves, we not only ensure that we have successfully lived, but also, we ensure that after we are gone our memories will continue on. 

On this Shabbat, let us contemplate the ways in which we live, and consider how to ensure that we are paving the way for the things ideas and values that are important to us to continue on even after we are gone. In this way we can ensure not just that we have lived, 
but that both we, and what matters to us, will live on through those we leave behind.

Chazak chazack v’nitchazek. May we be strong and may we be strengthened.

Kein Yehi Ratzon.
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