Rabbi Sydni's Shabbat Sermons

פרשת ויחי, תש״פ

Parshat Vay'hi, 5780

by Rabbi Sydni

Saturday, January 11th, 2020

Like Jacob, Start Planning Early

Rabbi Elliott Dorff - esteemed author, respected halakhist, and all-around mensch - teaches a number of philosophy classes at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies - Philosophy of Prayer, Conservative Judaism I and II, and Biomedical Ethics, among others. In each class he teaches, there’s a moment or two in which he stops all conversation with the reminder that we should start preparing for the end of our lives right now. Speaking to a room of mostly students in their twenties and thirties, he asks, have you completed an advanced directive? A property will and an ethical will? Have you checked with your parents, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters, to see if they’re prepared too? Rabbi Dorff’s reasoning expands beyond the halakhic, beyond the confines of Jewish text and tradition -“The reason to start planning early,” he says, “is that you want your family members to still be speaking with one another after you’re gone.” No one wants to think about the end of her or his life before the time is ripe, and yet, planning for the end of life is something that every adult needs to do right now. By planning for death in the prime of your life, you assure that your memory will be respected after you’re gone, and you assure that your loved ones will have enough of your affairs taken care of that they can mourn for you with comfort and intention.

In the Jewish tradition, the mitzvah of l’viat ha-met, guiding the deceased from death to burial, is seen as the ultimate hesed shel emet, act of compassionate faith. We adopt this phrase, hesed shel emet, from our ancestor Jacob’s speech to his son Joseph in today’s parshah. As he instructs Joseph on where to bury him, he asks Joseph to do him this hesed v’emet, this act of compassion and faithfulness. He tells Joseph where exactly to bury him, hands over to Joseph the land of Sh’khem to deal with expenses, outlines which sons and grandsons will inherit what, and even creates a sort of ethical will, describing the specific messages he wants to convey to each of his sons in intricate Biblical poetry.

Jacob makes these requests because he knows the personal toil of being in love with one who did not have concrete plans upon her death. When Rachel died on the way from Padan Aram to Efrat years earlier, Jacob buried her on the side of the road. The medieval commentator Seforno remarks that Jacob was so weak with mourning that he could not physically or emotionally journey with his beloved Rachel’s body to the next town; he did not have the strength to make plans in the moments after her death. Now, towards the end of his own life, Jacob regrets his inability to be buried with Rachel. In the days after the death of a loved one, even today, it’s difficult to balance technical arrangements with crippling grief. Jacob, like Rabbi Elliot Dorff, knows the great hesed shel emet of arranging affairs early enough for mourners to still be able to have their space in the moments after a death.

In homage to Jacob’s instructions to bury him in the cave of Mahpelah with his ancestors and his wife Leah, do you have instructions for where and with whom you will be buried? In the vein of making sure your family members are able to speak to one another civilly after your death, do you have the financial resources to reserve a burial plot and pay for funeral home expenses now? If not, now is the time to specify for your family where those expenses will come from, when the time comes. While Jewish tradition specifies burial in a plain pine box, and the funeral service contains some standard prayers, are there aspects of the funeral itself that you want to specify for your mourners? If there’s poetry or song or a dress code that you feel exemplifies your life, you may let your descendents know, for the sake of both your own respect and the respect of those arranging your affairs.

In addition to burial rites, in the time between death and the grave, Jewish tradition offers the rituals of shmirah and taharah. With shmirah, there is always a person present with the body between death and burial, assuring that the soul of the deceased is kept company in the uncertain time before final rest. With taharah, the body itself is washed of impurities and prepared in such a way that it is able to sacredly and cleanly make its way back to its beginning as the dust of the earth. Both rituals contain specially crafted prayers to comfort the soul on its tenuous journey. For the honor of your soul and of millennia of Jewish tradition, you may choose to make clear to those who follow you your preference for Jewish customs like shmirah and taharah.

Beyond the preparation of your body itself comes practical discussions of how to deal with your affairs both towards the end of your life and after that end. With today’s technology, the end-of-life conversation begins earlier and earlier, with many falling ill and staying ill long before death. For the ease of your family, please make clear to them your medical preferences, should you one day be unable to make those decisions on your own. Because of the unique connections your loved ones have with you, each may want something different when the time comes to make big decisions. Honor that with an advanced directive shared with all those close to you; honor that by electing one individual as your medical proxy, and explain your decisions to those you love. To make this process just a little easier, I’ve placed copies of the Conservative Movement’s Jewish Medical Directives for Health Care, a document that outlines choices for you to make about the future of your healthcare, on the table outside the sanctuary. I can always send you the link, print out another copy for you, or even act as a witness and spiritual advisor when you fill out this document in the future.

Of course, as Jacob did, creating a will for the distribution of your assets is crucial to both keeping your family together and making sure that your belongings go to where you want them. I know that mine is not the only family that contains several people who have held grudges for decades after a seemingly unfair distribution of inheritance. Andif you have values or family stories you want to pass down to those who come after you, as Jacob does in our parshah, creating an ethical will preserves those accomplishments and experiences for which you’ve lived your life. In an ethical will, you can share what you want the world to look like after you’re gone, or you can share your life story - who you are and how you made it here. Thinking about the end of life can be terrifying; we don’t know where we’re going or what is going to happen to our identities when we get there, but planning for that end at least preserves the concrete parts of ourselves we leave behind. When mourners and their community perform the hesed shel emet of accompanying the deceased to the cemetery and of making sure all of her or his needs are taken care of after the funeral itself, if that hesed shel emet is planned beforehand, it becomes not only an act of kindness for the deceased, but for the mourners as well.

Jacob, the founder of Israel, sets in motion a custom of preparations for end of life. At the very end of our parshah, the end of the book of Genesis, Joseph follows his father’s lead by asking that his bones be carried back to the land of Canaan after his death. In our Haftarah, King David instructs his son Solomon on how to carry on his legacy and walk in God’s paths. In our Jewish tradition, end of life planning cannot be seen as taboo, but rather, as something that our ancestors have embraced throughout history. If you haven’t begun yet, start thinking today about what will happen to you and to your family when your time inevitably comes. Give yourself ample time to work out details, knowing that the process may be an emotional one. Bring your loved ones into the conversation, so that they can support you, and so that they can become accustomed to knowing that as wonderful as you are, you are a human being whose time here is limited. Ultimately, offer your family the comfort of knowing they can support you in exactly the ways you would have wanted. Shabbat Shalom.