Saturday, December 18, 2010

Dying – How to? Vayechi 2010

Mrs. Goldie Kastel, my beloved grandmother, passed away recently,  ending a life of almost 93 years that included lots of love, hard work and dynamism. I dedicate this Torah thought to her.

How to do dying? is a question on my mind.  "Tuesday with Morrie", showed one way. The first account in the Torah of someone preparing to die is that of Jacob. Indeed we are told that up until that time people would simply die without warning, but Jacob requested an opportunity to tell his children his last wishes and repent. God's response was the introduction of illness[1], and Jacob acts as a role model of dying. 

Practicalities, blessings and criticism
Jacob certainly grasps the opportunity. The practical consideration of being buried in the land of Canaan is first. There are messages for each of his children, a mixture of blessing for some of his children and judgements of others. There is also expression of gratitude when he says to Joseph “I did not dare even allow myself to think of seeing your face again, but behold God has shown me also your children[2]”.

Moment before dying a climax?
There is a view of the moment before death as a great moment in a persons life. This is hinted at in the choice of name used to refer to Jacob shortly before he dies. (Jacob's name had been changed by an Angel after his victorious wrestle with him[3].  In spite of the change he is still sometimes called Jacob and other times he is called Israel, depending on his situation. The name Jacob is used when he is in a state of “worry, sadness and lowliness”, reflecting the story of Jacob as the twin who wanted to be born first but came second, trying to grab the heal of his victorious brother. Israel, is the named associated with joy, tranquillity and greatness). As the time of his death approaches he is called Israel[4], because of the “secret of the expansion of the soul of man at the time of death[5]. One way to think about this is as the life of the righteous person being an upward journey, each day building on the achievements of the day before it. The greatest moment is his/her last.

Dying slowly
Regardless of the greatness of the soul, we are confronted with the diminishing of the body.  I am thinking of the difficult time my grandmother endured  in the last part of her life and my failure and inability to alleviate her suffering. For a while before her health deteriorated, we talked on the phone on a weekly basis. It gave her and me great joy. As her hearing got worse, combined with an operation that made her lose her ability to talk, the phone became impractical and her being in the US and me being in Australia there was nothing I could do.

An astonishing interpretation of this is that every day is nourished by one spark of the soul called a “day”, at the end of the day that spark partially separates itself from the soul. In advanced old age, the soul has lost much of its earlier self. It is only shortly before death, that these “days” and sparks of soul gather as it says “and the days (eg. Sparks of his soul) of Israel came close for dying.

Sharp Seniors
There is a tendency to see old people as somehow dim-witted and treat them in a patronising way.  When Jacob prepares to bless Joseph's children he puts his right hand (which is seen as more important in Judaism) on the head of Joseph's younger son Efrayim instead of the eldest Menasheh. Joseph is not happy about this and supports Jacobs right hand to move it to the head of the eldest son. “not like this, father” says Joseph, “because this one is the first-born, put your right hand on his head[6]”. Jacob refuses, “I know, my son, I know”... he says, explaining that the younger one will be greater.  The midrash cryptically interprets the double “I know” as alluding to the failures of Reuben and Judah[7]. I know all about the “first-born”, I know about those with the positions of greatness and how they fall[8]. Of course Jacob began his life with a protest against the privilege of the first born grabbing hold of the first born Esau's heal. 

My grandmother was a delightful, sharp, spunky presence in my life over last twenty years especially. She managed to pull off, both rock star style and humility at her 80th birthday. In recent conversations, she talked about how she and my grandfather paid the teachers in the Yeshiva they ran in Boston, before they paid themselves. I also remember her saying once “we don't have Geveerim (rich people) in our family”. Her legacy to her many grandchildren and great grandchildren was the primacy of service, right and wrong and love. May her memory be a blessing. 

[1]    Elie Munk the Call of the Torah, Genesis p 628, citing Tosefot to Bava Basra 16b, Pirkei D'Rabbi Eliezer 52. Also in Yalkut Me'am Loez Vayechi.
[2]    Genesis 48:10
[3]    Genesis, 32:29
[4]    Genesis 48:21
[5]    Ohr Hachayim on Genesis 47:28
[6]    Genesis 48:17-19
[7]    Beresheet Rabba, 97
[8]    Zohar, cited in Elie Munk, the Call of the Torah, Genesis p.638

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