In this week’s Torah portion, Vayechi, we have the most intimate description of a deathbed scene and the most elaborate description of a le’vayah (funeral) contained in the Torah.
As I read through this portion in preparation for writing this column, I found myself struggling for a theme. I quieted my mind for a moment and found myself immersed in memories — memories of the dying, of funerals, of people working through grief. Like all congregational clergy, I have attended to the dying and their families. It is one of the holiest things I do, or, more precisely, one of things I do that makes me most conscious of the Holy.
It’s an aspect of a rabbi’s life that, I believe, is key to all of us, but one that we don’t talk about much, even to each other. I feel in some ways that a dying man helped make me a rabbi.
I was a rabbinical student at the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion when I first reported to my second part-time student pulpit in Boise, Idaho, in September 1982. Linda, the synagogue president’s wife, picked me up from the airport and after a bit of chitchat asked me if I was willing to work hard. I said that I was and told her a bit about myself, to which she responded, "Well, maybe you’ll do." She told me that there was a dying man, and she felt he needed to talk to a rabbi.
I had no idea what rabbis or anyone said to someone who is dying. It was just before Rosh Hashanah and I thought maybe he would want to hear the shofar, so I brought it along with my prayer book.
When we got to the hospital, Linda took a seat in the waiting room and I walked into the dying man’s room. He was having trouble breathing and looked angry. He said, "What’s that in your hand?" I told him it was a shofar, and I asked him if he wanted to hear it. He told me that if I wanted to be helpful, I could throw my shofar and my prayer book out the window and bring him a gun so he could put himself out of his misery.
I could feel that I had been play-acting at being a rabbi, doing what I thought a rabbi should do. I wasn’t real. I caught my breath and my bearings returned.
I put the shofar and the siddur on an empty bed, pulled up a chair next to him and said, "I don’t have a gun, and I don’t know that I would give it to you if I had one, but tell me why you want one." He told me of his excruciating pain in taking each breath. He told me of a wasted life, of the bitterness in his family. He just wanted out.
I told him, "I want you to tell me what went wrong, what you would do differently." I did not ask that only as therapy, I am a bit ashamed to say; I asked for me. I suddenly knew that one of the ways I might die would be like this, in a hospital bed, in pain. Would I think of a life wasted? Would I be filled with bitterness? I wanted him to teach me.
Each word was spoken in pain, but he insisted on speaking. I filled in words for him, and eventually pulled out a notepad and started writing things down. He spoke in grief about his children and their discord. I asked him what he would want to tell them, what legacy he wanted to give them. I told him, "This is your final goal — help us live better lives."
He grew so tired that I knew it was time to leave the room. I told Linda how it went. I could see her eyes laugh when I told her about asking him about the shofar. When I finished, she said, "You’ve got some work cut out for you here."
I flew into Boise once a month for a few days each time. I visited with the man in the remaining few months of his life and I spoke to his family. I helped him compose what I later learned was called an ethical will, a way of passing his values on to his family.
Linda and her husband, Alan, guided me carefully through the entire process, up through his death, which occurred when I was in Los Angeles; a lay leader officiated at the funeral. I felt the dying man’s family was transformed by his work, a transformation I hope was lasting.
I took the lessons he taught both to me and his children to heart. I became a witness to a family story, a story of love and bitterness and folly, and a final redemption. I realized that every family, every person has such a story, a fully textured life of hopes and dreams, of joy and heroism and tragedy, and we hope, of redemption.
Every life is a like book of the Torah, filled with laws and lessons, wisdom, drama and destiny. I realized something of my role, as one who works with the dying and their families — if I can, to draw out a teaching, a legacy, for those left to grieve, and for me.
And as we attend to the dying, grieve with their families, draw out lessons and legacies, we strengthen them, and we are strengthened.
Mordecai Finley is the rabbi of Ohr HaTorah and the provost of the Academy for Jewish Religion, California.