How to Live While Mourning the Dead
This parasha is called “Vayehi” meaning, “and Jacob lived”. This indicates not only a physical existence–in the land of Egypt–but also a spiritual place, where Jacob could live the final years of his life, quiet and content. .
We finally see our ancestor, no longer on the run, no longer in turmoil, but living in peace and above all living. Nevertheless, Vayehi is ultimately about the deaths of our ancestors and the closing of this chapter in our people’s story. As Jacob prepares to die, he is able to bless his children and grandchildren. He imparts lessons for the future and his family is gathered at his side when he takes his last breath.
The description of Jacob’s death is very different from what we’ve seen earlier. When Sarah, Abraham, Isaac and Rachel die the text economizes its language simply stating the essential facts in a verse or two. It doesn’t even mention the deaths of Rebecca or Leah. Furthermore, Sarah, Abraham, and Isaac die apart from their children, alone and isolated.
Not so for Jacob. The Genesis text devotes its last three chapters to his final days. Jacob prepares for the moment, and when the time comes Midrash teaches that his life ended gently, with Shechina–an emanation of the divine–taking Jacob’s soul with a kiss. After all of the turmoil, in his life, Jacob was able to live his final days in peace and die in peace.
When our time comes isn’t this what we would prefer? Dying at a ripe old age, at home, family gathered by ones side? It is what the dying prefer; however, it is the survivors that must go on living. And our tradition teaches us well how to support them. Consoling the bereaved is a regular part of Jewish life, and certainly a prominent part of my rabbinate. Some families that I’ve been with at their lowest point are there prematurely—grieving the death of a child, or a young parent.
More often, however, I’ve been with people who are mourning the loss of an elderly spouse or parent who lived a full and rich life and who died, like Jacob, quiet and content. Their funerals and memorial services are a combination of celebration and sorrow: sad, but not unexpected. We mourn these deaths and we wrap the living in a blanket of love and support. Yet despite the grief and sadness, that always accompanies death, many families are grateful for having been close together, reconciled, surrounding their loved ones, at their bedside. It is, perhaps, the way we would want God to take our souls—with a kiss—at the end of a lengthy and fulfilled life.
Yet whenever a loved one dies, no matter how old, the pain of the loss is very sharp. Just look at Joseph’s response following his father’s death, who died by the way at the age of one hundred and forty seven.
The text says, “Jacob. . . drew his feet into the bed and, breathing his last, he was gathered to his people. Joseph flung himself upon his father’s face and wept over him and kissed him.” (Gen. 50:1). Joseph is the first son in our tradition to witness his father’s death and mourn for him in this manner. Joseph responds naturally, with expressive, sorrowful wails. There was a time in his mourning when Joseph was disconsolate, and his grief was profound and unrestrained. Even the leaders of Egypt mourned for Jacob and consoled Joseph.
What is impressive as well is that others helped Joseph and his brothers prepare for their father’s burial in the Cave of the Machpelah, in Canaan, with his ancestors. Joseph made the decisions, but others did much of the work providing the family with time and space to mourn appropriately.
Most of us have felt the pain of losing a loved one. We’ve been the child, or grandchild, and in some cases the parent. Perhaps we’ve been the close friend to whom the mourner turns asking for help and support. We need to make decisions often when we re least prepared to do so.
Thankfully, Jewish tradition has created a clear and cogent pathway for mourning the loss of a loved one. Certain ritual practices are strongly recommended: a quick, simple burial, for example. Set periods of mourning are established. Shiva—the first seven days; sheloshim—the first thirty days; yartzheit – the anniversary. All these are markers along a never-ending path of mourning, but a path that is often easier to travel along with the passing of time.
The mourner has certain responsibilities. So too, do those of us called upon to comfort them. Nichum Avelim—consoling the bereaved is an important mitzvah. Yet when we proclaim this virtue in our daily liturgy, we recognize that it doesn’t provide directions. So how do we help our friends mourn? We visit them in their home, and perhaps we prepare a meal for them. We clean their home, do their laundry, run errands for them – daily tasks that they may be unable to perform. We sit with them and talk to them. Sometimes we don’t talk at all, but rather hold their hand and simply cry with them. We listen. Shiva and sheloshim can be overwhelming as the mourner is flooded with visitors and calls. But soon, life for most returns to its regular pace, albeit transformed. Then the very difficult days of mourning commence. Birthdays and anniversaries pass. The first holidays without a loved one. Small things that remind the mourner of the person they lost.
This is when Nichum Aveilim—comforting the bereaved is essential. This is when an invitation to lunch or coffee is most appreciated. This is when a simple note saying, “I’m thinking about you” can mean the most. This is when a quick call just to say hello is most appreciated, not necessarily in the first month, but rather in the months that follow.
Parashat Vayehi concludes the book of Genesis. Just as the universe was brought into being by words spoken from the lips of God, so too does Genesis end with a soft divine kiss that takes the soul of Jacob to life everlasting. Yet Jacob’s family remains. Joseph’s brothers and their families remain to carry forth the flame of our ancestral clan, keeping his memory alive. When we have lost, we carry on the memories, values and ideals of our loved one, and their light, so writes Hannah Szenesh, illumines for us the path, enabling us to live.