Academy for Jewish Religion

Live Like You’re Dying

Parashat Vayehi 5780

A D’var Torah for Parashat Vayehi
By Rabbi David Markus

This last Torah portion of the Book of Genesis (Vayeḥi) concludes the drama of Jacob, Joseph and his brothers. The dramatic saga – their troubled family dynamics, power and power inversions, regret, guilt, fear, their very lives – it all finally reaches a settled tableau. Jacob is buried, hatchets are buried (maybe), and Joseph’s body is embalmed. With them, Torah’s first era of Jewish ancestry ends.

Of course, their deaths are Torah’s fertilizer for the future. Reflecting God’s promise to Abraham long before (Gen. 15:13), by design all of this week’s endings are mere prelude. The next chapter soon will open by recounting those generations (Ex. 1:1-6), and a new king of Egypt will rise to life who knows not Joseph (Ex. 1:8). Centuries of bondage will commingle death and life until only supernatural deaths – the Tenth Plague and the drowning of Egypt’s hosts in the Sea – will bring new life to liberated Israelites who would become Jews.

We learn that death can yield new life. Death and life inter-are. As the 1998 Semisonic hit put it, “Closing time: Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” This spiritual truth leaps from the name of this week’s portion so seemingly focused on death and ending: Vaye– “[Jacob] lived” (Gen. 47:28). As Rashi noted, this set-up is key to what follows.

Look carefully at what comes next (Gen. 47:29): ויקרבו ימי-ישראל למות / Vayikrevu y’mei-Yisrael lamut. While often translated as “When the time came for Israel to die,” a more precise translation would be “When Israel’s days approached to die” – not the man but his days, his sense of time, his sense of his time.

The difference is key. This ending portion of the Book of Genesis (“Book of Beginning”) begins not with Israel’s death but with his awareness that his days were numbered. It was only “some time later” that he became fatally sick (Gen. 48:1) and said that his actual death was approaching (Gen. 48:21). His awareness of mortality came well before.

Awareness of mortality is part of life’s journey and a catalyst for life’s potency. Spiritually, mortality awareness is not a consolation prize but a goal, a good in itself, a way to live fully: “Teach us to number our days that we may attain a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12).

Understood this way, all of Vayehi charts this spiritually fertile phase of Jacob’s life – starting with his awareness that his days were numbered. Torah’s order of what unfolded next may look familiar to anyone who experiences a loved one’s aging or expected death.

Immediately after Jacob spoke his mortality awareness, Jacob gave burial instructions (Gen. 47:29-31). Some time later, Jacob took ill, summoning Joseph and his sons to the sickbed (Gen. 48:1-2). Only then did Jacob speak a life review – his sense of his life’s meaning (Gen. 48:3-4). Jacob invoked angels and blessing (Gen. 48:16). He gave his sons an ethical will – his download of values (Gen. 49:1-28). He gave final instructions (Gen. 49:29-32), then died (Gen. 49:33). Joseph wailed in the first suffering of aninut, the first stage of mourning (Gen. 50:1). Joseph summoned himself to make arrangements (Gen. 50:2-6). Jacob’s sons buried him and honored a seven-day shiva of aveilut, “mourning,” (Gen. 50:7-14). Joseph’s brothers felt guilt and fear in the shadow of Jacob’s death (Gen. 50:15). The brothers appealed to Joseph in their father’s name (Gen. 50:15-18). Joseph resolved to care for them and their descendants (Gen. 50:19-22).

Such was Jacob’s journey, and the journey of his sons, and the journey we all must take.

We don’t need spiritual life to teach that death is guaranteed: nobody gets out alive. Rather, we need spiritual life – and Jacob’s final life stages of Vayehi – to teach that the richest and most meaningful lives come by making death awareness an integral part of life, ideally long before any presenting circumstance forces our focus.

We learn that the avoidant impulse to distance our sense of mortality ultimately robs us of the chance to live most fully. It was Jacob’s awareness of his mortality, and then openly speaking it with Joseph, that catalyzed emotional intimacy between them (Gen. 48:29). It was Jacob’s transparency to mortality that catalyzed the spiritual blessings of his life review and ethical will. It was Jacob numbering his days that brought a heart of wisdom.

Vayehi teaches: Don’t be afraid to speak mortality and even live like you’re dying. Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end. It is only by allowing ourselves to become ever more present to our dying that we can most fully live.
Rabbi David Evan Markus (AJR Adjunct Faculty – Rabbinics) is senior rabbi of Temple Beth El of City Island (New York, NY) and Founding Builder of Bayit: Building Jewish, a spiritual innovation start-up for all ages and stages. Rabbi Markus also serves as Faculty in Spiritual Direction and past Board Co-Chair for ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal. By day, Rabbi Markus presides as Judicial Referee in New York Supreme Court, 9th Judicial District, as part of a parallel career in government service.

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