September 25, 2018

Rosner’s Torah Talk: Parashat Vayechi with Rabbi Chaim Strauchler

Rabbi Chaim Strauchler serves as the rabbi of Shaarei Shomayim Congregation in Toronto, Ontario. Rabbi Strauchler received his ordination from the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University. Rabbi Strauchler earned a Diploma in Theology and a Master’s Degree in Religious Studies from Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. He also holds a Master’s Degree in Biblical Studies from Bernard Revel Graduate School, and is a Wexner Graduate Fellowshipalumnus.  As a student, Rabbi Strauchler founded the literary journal, Mima’amakim.  Before joining Shaarei Shomayim, Rabbi Strauchler served as rabbi at Beit Chaverim Synagogue in Westport, Connecticut.  Rabbi Strauchler is currently a member of the executive of the Rabbinical Council of America and the Rabbinical Vaad HaKashruth of COR.

Parashat Vayechi (Genesis 47:28-50:26) is the final portion of the book of Genesis. The portion describes the final days of Jacob, the blessing given to his sons, Jacob’s death and burial, and the death of Joseph.

 

Previous Torah Talks on Veyechi with:

Rabbi Denise Eger

Rabbi Josh Yuter

Rabbi Joanne Heiligman

 

The life-death continuum

Parashat Vayechi is an opportunity to meditate on the proximity of life and death. In the traditional Torah scroll, Vayechi — which describes the death of Jacob — and the parsha preceding it, Vayigash, are written with no space between them. This unusual phenomenon is called a “closed portion” (“parsha setuma”). Juxtaposing the two so closely could be read as a statement about the contiguousness of mortality and its seeming opposite, immortality. Might this hint at a non-binary understanding of the life-death continuum? 

The paradoxical meaning of the Torah portion’s name strengthens this speculation. Like the parsha Chayei Sarah (The Life of Sarah), which is about the death of Sarah, this portion tells of the death of Jacob, yet bears the name Vayechi (And he lived). Its narrative concerns the death of the patriarch, described as “being gathered to his kin” (Genesis 49:29), and the prophetic blessings (often more like damnings) he gives his sons, seemingly in his effort to continue to influence them beyond his death.

Upon hearing of the death of a beloved, tradition would have us rend our garment and cry out to bless “God the True Judge” (“Baruch Dayan Emet”). However, belief in God’s Truth at that moment may be a tall order. It is more likely that those of us in that position have, in the words of T.S. Eliot in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” “squeezed the universe into a ball / To roll it towards some overwhelming question.”

And that question is: Where is the deceased? Where does the soul go? And where is God? My answer: They have become one. 

People often think that Judaism is mute on the subject of the afterlife, but they are mistaken. Hints are everywhere. Not only in the names of parshiot, but in lines we study each morning, when we speak of our acts of lovingkindness nourishing us in this world (olam hazeh) and being stored up for us in a kind of piggy bank in heaven (keren kayemeth b’olam haba). 

Another clue is in the prayer we say for the deceased. Not the Kaddishwhich has too many resonances with immortality for this column to contain, but the El Male Rachamim, recited at the funeral, during shiva, and at Yizkor (memorial) services in the years to come. It addresses the “God of Compassion,” imploring that the deceased find deserved rest under the wings of the glory of the divine presence. Entering the word “rachamim/compassion,” we find its root: “rechem/womb.” This implies that the lifetime is a journey from womb to womb, and indicates our earthly task: to stay aligned with the attribute of compassion that infuses this world (olam hazeh) and the next (olam haba). 

We are told that when we say Kaddish, we effect the purgation of the souls of those we have lost. The Zohar tells us, “If not for the righteous in prayer on the other side, the world would not exist for one hour.” Does this not imply a continuing dynamic connection between the worlds?

People always ask me if Judaism believes in life after death. My glib response is that Judaism doesn’t believe in death. I’ve been saying that for years, but I think I have come to understand it only recently. I used to think in terms of the dream scene in “Fiddler on the Roof.”  Grandma Tzeitel comes from the other world to warn her great-granddaughter from marrying the butcher, Lazar Wolf. I had a sense of deceased souls as always hovering. 

I see more now. In Hebrew, the word for “soul” (neshama) and the word for “breath” (nashima) are almost the same. I think this refers to that continuous wind that goes in and out of us. When we breathe in, filling those spaces between the matter that is our bodies, it gives us the illusion of being separate selves, but the continuity of the breath/soul, in both time and space, is much more the truth of the universe. 

Through prayer, meditation and yoga, I have viscerally experienced what I think the Shema has been trying to tell us: Oneness is all there is. I have felt the curtain between life and death — past, present and future — dissolve. In my flesh, I have come to believe that the boundaries are artificial. 

After all, we’re mostly empty space. If we get down to our atomic selves, we discover that we generally consist of holes with tiny, tiny bits of matter spinning through. 

However, since we value matter above all and identify with what we see in the mirror, what we can touch and smell and hold in our embrace, we face death with terror. The hardest human task is transforming the impermanent physical connection with those we love to the spiritual connection that is everlasting.

As Prufrock said: “Oh, do not ask, ‘What is it?’ / Let us go and make our visit.” 


Rabbi Anne Brener, a Los Angeles-based psychotherapist and spiritual director, is a professor at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California.

Torah portion: Securing a Jewish legacy

What will be our legacy? Every generation asks itself this question. It’s part of aging and looking to bridge past and future. Legacy gives us a sense that our life is worthwhile. It gives us the basis to believe that all our struggles and decisions in life can be framed in a way that can live on after us. It gives us a chance at immortality.

The book of Genesis ends with a meditation on legacy. We find the children of Jacob living quite well under Pharaoh’s rule. As Jacob becomes conscious of his own impending death, he gathers together his family to share with them words of blessing. He wants to set his affairs in order — to shape his legacy — for each of his children. He calls them forth and musters what prophetic strength he has, saying,

“Come together, that I may tell you what is to befall you in the days to come” (Genesis 49:1).

Jacob’s worries are no different than our own. Will our children believe what we believe? Will they cherish the same values that we do? Will they forget our struggles?

We see in Jacob the very fear that drives much of the Jewish community today around questions of prosperity, continuity and fidelity. The children of Jacob are not starving as they did before, but they are not yet living up to God’s promise and covenant struck with Abraham.

They are in exile from the land of Canaan, they have Egyptian wives and children — especially Joseph, who has two Egyptian sons who do not know their grandfather (Genesis 48:8).

Moreover, Jacob, like every parent at the end of his or her life, cannot prescribe a living reality of which he or she is not a part. The Talmud echoes this idea: “Jacob wanted to reveal the end of days to his sons but the Shekhinah [God’s presence] departed from him.”

Being gripped by the insecurity of his own mortality and the fear of the possibility of a failed legacy, his divine vision becomes clouded. He cannot truly see into the future.

Jacob’s fears are our fears. Will my children marry within the faith? Will they raise Jewish children? Will they love Israel the way I love Israel? Will they get along with each other? The many sociological studies that ask these questions give us no confidence in our legacy.

They scare us. Like Jacob, our vision is clouded, our future uncertain. Ultimately we ask ourselves: How would we, even if it were possible, shape a Jewish future of which we will have no part?

The question of Jewish legacy is one that takes hold in every generation, and here too the Torah gives us an answer. Let’s turn from the perspective of Jacob to that of Joseph’s sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. These two Egyptian-born kids have an Egyptian mother and a grandfather who is the priest of Egypt (Genesis 46:20). Their names point towards the discontinuity of their heritage in both memory (Manasseh, meaning “God has made me forget completely my hardship and my parental home”) and geography (Ephraim, meaning God has made me fertile in the land of my affliction) (Genesis 41:51-52). Their experience of Judaism is colored entirely by their father’s time in Pharaoh’s palace. Their first language is not Hebrew. They are assimilated into a different culture with a different spiritual language. They have a different orientation to life, and a different outlook on what the future holds.

Menasseh and Ephraim are familiar to us. They represent those in our families who carry a very different attitude about life — those who only feel “Jew-ish,” or whose experience of Judaism is to feel marginalized from the greater Jewish family. They are the embodiment of our Jewish fear.

Here they stand with their father before the Old Guard with whom they have no relationship. There is tension and uncertainty between the parties. That is when the Torah, as it always does, shows us the way forward.

Jacob takes these estranged boys into his bosom, and says, “Now, your two sons … shall be mine.” (Genesis 48:5). Jacob reaches out to embrace Menasseh and Ephraim as his own children. He makes room for them inside the tradition. He makes room for their differences. He makes room for their sense of the future. Jacob understands that children should not live only for their parents. Judaism is bigger than that. The covenant is bigger than that.

We must embrace our Menassehs and our Ephraims. Our legacy as Jews is to move beyond our fear, to make room for new ideas, all the while understanding the need to make our Jewish lives feel indigenous to our historical psyche. Jacob shows us that the elasticity within our tradition is what makes Judaism a vibrant, life-giving and meaningful path.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel reflected on this truth when he wrote, “The significance of Judaism does not lie in its being conducive to the mere survival of a particular people but rather in its being a source of spiritual wealth, a source of meaning relevant to all peoples.”

The last gift of Jacob, for whom our nation is named, is the moral assertion that God’s blessings are always expansive. We bless our children in the name of Ephraim and Menasseh, bringing to the center of Jewish life those who have not historically felt part of our community. Ultimately, our legacy will be secured as the children of Jacob when we follow our father’s advice to let our hands rest on the heads on those who live on the outside, and make them our own.

Rabbi Noah Farkas is a clergy member at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, founder of Netiya, and the author of “The Social Action Manual: Six Steps to Repairing the World” (Behrman House).

Torah portion: A good death

It was a good death. 
 
Jacob had finished all that was left to do. He gave his son Joseph explicit instructions about what he wanted when he died: “When I lie down with my ancestors, have me taken out of Egypt and be buried in their burial place.”
 
He had the chance to meet his grandchildren and bless them after he was reunited with Joseph: “I never expected to see you again,” the old man says to Joseph, “and here, God has let me see your children as well.” 
 
The same man who responded to Pharaoh’s question “How old are you?” with the cynical answer, “The days and years of my sojourn are one hundred and thirty. Few and hard have been the years of my life …” now, 17 years later, at his deathbed, gathers all his sons around him and blesses each one of them with a unique blessing. While I wouldn’t say these blessings are particularly gentle, he does get to say to his (male) children exactly what he wanted to say. 
 
Then he gives even more explicit instructions to all of his sons: “Bury me with my fathers in the cave that lies in the field of Ephron the Hittite in the cave in the field of Machpelah. … There Abraham and his wife Sarah are buried, and so are Isaac and his wife Rebekah, and there, too, I buried Leah — the field and the cave had been purchased from the Hittites.” 
 
And then he dies a peaceful death: “When Jacob had finished commanding his sons, he gathered up his feet into the bed and expired and was gathered to his kinspeople.”
 
There is no record of any kind of choices that his sons had to make about end-of-life decisions. Jacob is apparently coherent until the last moments. A good death. Would that each of us could be so lucky!
 
We all know stories of people we love whose final months were characterized by aggressive treatment in intensive care units. For many of them, this would not have been their choice, but they never made their preferences clear to those who might carry them out. And of course, those last months of life are particularly expensive, both for Medicare and for the dying. Many experts argue that multiple and intensive services at the end of life interfere with what could have been a peaceful dying experience. 
 
Why is it so hard for us to do what Jacob seemed to do so effortlessly? He wasn’t afraid to talk with his children about death. He told them exactly how he wanted to be buried. And in addition, he left them a kind of ethical will, a statement about what mattered to him in the form of the blessings he invoked for each of his sons. Why is it so hard for us?
 
According to a recent study by the California HealthCare Foundation, six out of 10 people say they don’t want to burden their family with end-of-life decisions, but almost as many (56 percent) have not talked about what they want. Research has shown that planning ahead for end-of-life care through advance directives not only reduces family tension but also reduces the cost of end-of-life care. 
Jacob knew he was going to die. After all, he was 147 years old. But no matter how old we are, we, too, know we are going to die … someday. The example of Jacob should give us the incentive we need to have these conversations now. And what better place than in our own synagogues, where we can learn what Jewish tradition has to teach us about end-of-life decisions and about the spiritual practices that can help us make meaning out of the time we have left to live, practices like writing an ethical will or becoming part of a wise aging circle. 
 
Several synagogues in Los Angeles are joining together with Cedars-Sinai Medical Center to create a pilot program through which congregants will learn the tools to facilitate these conversations for other members of their congregation with the goal of increasing the numbers of congregants with end-of-life directives. Some synagogues, such as Temple Emanuel (tebh.org/nextstage), have resources available on their websites. Other synagogues have taken part in the Institute for Jewish Spirituality’s Wise Aging program, where lay leaders are being trained to offer ongoing groups within their congregation to reflect on what it means to age with grace.
 
Now back to our Torah portion. The midrash tells the story that when Jacob (who was also called Israel) was about to die, he called all of his children and told them, “I am afraid that when I die, you will bow down to another god.”
 
They responded, “Listen Israel, Adonai is our God, only Adonai.”
 
Relieved and grateful, Jacob whispered, “Baruch shem k’vod malchuto l’olam va-ed! Blessed be the name of God’s glorious kingdom forever and ever.” 
 
And so when we say the Shema in the morning and the evening service, followed by the whispered “Baruch shem …” we are acting out that deathbed scene of children promising their parent that they understood what he taught. 
 
Jacob had a good death. He didn’t leave anything unsaid, including what he wanted to happen around his death. That was a blessing, for him and for his children. If we have those conversations in our own families, it will also be a blessing for our children and for us. 
 
Laura Geller is a senior rabbi of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills (tebh.org).