As the Book of Genesis comes to a close in this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Va-yechi, so too does the life of our patriarch Jacob. “Some time afterward,” we read in Genesis 48:1, “Joseph was told, ‘Your father is ill.'” This one sentence is powerful in so many ways. It is the first time in the Torah we hear of anyone described as choleh–ill. We learn that Joseph had to be told that his father had become ill; why didn’t Joseph know on his own? And, finally, this verse begins to shape the Jewish response to the process of dying.
I once heard someone say that humans’ greatest fears are (1) dying alone and (2) dying in pain. With regard to dying in pain, we are blessed to live in the 21st century: an age when doctors are, in so many ways, angels in their ability to heal and in their ability to alleviate pain. And, when the end is near, our community has the Jewish Hospice and Chaplaincy Network (www.jewishhospice.org or 248-592-2687).
Having been alerted to Jacob’s illness, Joseph visits him at once and brings his children along as well. Jacob gathers his grandsons, Ephraim and Manasseh, and offers them a blessing. Together, Joseph and his sons declare to their father and grandfather, Jacob (also known as Israel) “Shema Yisrael: Listen, [our father and grandfather] Israel, the LORD is our God; the LORD is one.” This is the origin of the Shema: a family’s proclamation to its patriarch that it will continue on with his ways after he is gone. This tradition has carried down to our day as well. Before a loved one dies, Rabbi Krakoff and I can lead a family in recital of Viddui-a set of Jewish prayers that asks God for healing, for forgiveness, and that our loved ones should feel God’s presence in their darkest hour. We conclude the Viddui, like Joseph did, with Shema Yisrael, the last words a Jew tries to utter before he or she dies. Also, one need not wait until the very end to declare the Viddui and say Shema. These prayers are also said before one goes into surgery, and in a life threatening situation. Saying the Viddui does not guarantee death either, as it begin with a prayer for healing. The Viddui offers an individual and his/her family the opportunity to find peace, to feel God’s presence, and to know that s/he is not alone. Please contact Rabbi Krakoff or me if or when the time is right.
When Joseph heard that Jacob had grown ill, he wasted no time in addressing the physical and spiritual needs of his father. So too when our own loved ones are ill, let us strive to heal them and to provide them with physical and spiritual comfort. As members of Congregation Shaarey Zedek, our synagogue family and especially our clergy are here to care for you and your family. When our days on earth and those of our loves ones are near their end, we pray that they should feel no pain and that they never feel alone. We are here for you.
Rebecca, Caleb and Ayal join me in wishing you Shabbat shalom um’vorach.
-Rabbi Aaron Starr