Yom Sheini, 22 Iyyar 5779
Monday, 27 May 2019
Parashat Vayishlach 2014

Parashat Vayishlach
Rabbi Aaron Goldstein - 5th December 2014

And as her [Rachel’s] life was leaving her – for she was dying – she named him Ben-oni, but his father called him Benjamin (Gen 35:18).

One might understand why Rachel uses her dying breath to name her son ‘Ben-oni (son of my suffering).’ Her life had not been without some serious difficulties, not least a fractious relationship with her sister based on jealousy over Jacob and fertility. Her death following labour is therefore all the more poignant, having finally given birth to a second son (we of course do not know if there had been other girls). She has no opportunity to enjoy this child only acknowledge her own pain, perhaps even the unfairness of the whole situation.

Yet it seems that Jacob does not grant her the honour of naming their child, replacing Ben-oni with Binyamin(variously translated as son of the south, the right hand or of old age).

Was Jacob right to ignore the wishes of his dying wife?

Would it have been right to leave a child with a name that could have tainted him for the rest of his life? The playground can be cruel (ask Peter Bread) and the burden of being forever reminded of his mother’s death giving birth to him create a guilt complex.

I leave those questions to another day but want to suggest that this verse emphasises to me the importance of talking about dying and death especially with our loved ones with whom we share life. British people are notorious for avoiding talking, full-stop, or at least talking about the essential in life, let alone death, much preferring the weather.

In 2009 the National Council for Palliative Care (NCPC) set up the Dying Matters Coalition to promote public awareness of dying, death and bereavement, encouraging people to talk about their wishes towards the end of their lives.

The Coalition’s Mission is “to support changing knowledge, attitudes and behaviours towards death, dying and bereavement, and through this to make ‘living and dying well’ the norm". This will involve a fundamental change in society in which dying, death and bereavement will be seen and accepted as the natural part of everybody’s life cycle.

Changes in the way society views dying and death have impacted on the experience of people who are dying and bereaved. Our lack of openness has affected the quality and range of support and care services available to patients and families. It has also affected our ability to die where or how we would wish.

Talking about dying makes it more likely that you, or your loved one, will die as you might have wished and it will make it easier for your loved ones if they know you have had a ‘good death’.

Our Chairman of Liberal Judaism, Lucian Hudson wrote in the Guardian (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2010/mar/06/dying-death-disorient): “Part of the challenge of caring communities is to bring "dark" subjects such as death into the light, to expunge any sense of taboo·so that individuals can consider their wishes while the sun shines rather than be rushed into a decision as the end nears.