Yom Rivii, 12 AdarI 5781
Wednesday, 24 February 2021
Parashat Vayechi 5776

Rabbi Janet Burden
25th December 2015

Each of us has a name...

I have always loved the poem by Ukrainian-Israeli poet Zelda which is included in the themed reading on ‘Individuality’ in Siddur Lev Chadash (p. 228). ·It is very powerful, whether in the original Hebrew or in the English translation. ·I suppose what I admire most about it is the juxtaposition of the grand and universal with the intimate and personal, as in the verse, Each of us has a name given us by the mountains - ·and by the walls within which we live. ··One might be tempted to dismiss this as poetic hyperbole, but I personally believe that we indeed do live out our lives in this tension. ·We know ourselves to be part of an infinite Creation, more marvellous than anything we can imagine. ·Yet we can only experience the universe through the framework of our individual lives. ·Transcendent reality shapes what goes on around us; we shape our perceptions and responses. ·It is the combination of the two that determines who we are, or, as the poet frames it, what our name is.

The last stanza of the poem reads, “Each of us has a name given us by the sea - ·and by the way we die.” ·It was this line that rang in my memory often this past week, and what inspired me to share it with you now. ··It came into my mind initially when I was thinking of the death of the patriarch Jacob, and particularly how he prepared for his death. ·Never one to leave things up to chance, Jacob makes sure that his wishes are known to the one son who had the power to ensure that his instructions were carried out – to Joseph. ··But not content with his beloved son’s simple assurance, he makes him swear. ·There is a clear echo of the language used in the earlier scene when Jacob asked Esau to swear over his birthright. ·Hishavah li, vayishavah lo. ·Swear to me, and he swore to him. ·Like I said, Jacob is not one to leave anything to chance, whether he is acting honourably or dishonourably. ·He wants to be in control, even at this final stage of his life.

Thus it’s not all that surprising that Jacob is the first of the figures in the Bible to be given an extended death-bed scene. ·He is the Israel, the God-Wrestler, and he clings to life in much the same way as he clung on to the angel. ·We sense the enormous effort he makes to compose himself on the bed before Joseph arrives with his sons, ready to be blessed. ·Yet Jacob is not content to merely carry out this last task. ·The text portrays him rallying further so that he can make his farewell address to all his sons. ·Only when he has said what he must does he depart.

“Each of us has a name given to us by the sea – and by the way we die.” ·In the midrashic collection Bereshit Rabba, the rabbis observe that until Parashat Vayechi, there has been no mention of sickness in the Torah. ·Thus, they reason, sickness came into the world at that particular point in time. ·They imagine Jacob asking God to be granted a period of illness before his death, so that he would have a clear opportunity to put his house in order. ·God grants his request, and thus sickness is brought into the world.

However much the rabbinic tale might seem superficially reminiscent of the Greek legend of Pandora’s box (which also seeks to explain the origin of various ills in the world), it strikes me as profoundly different in its essence. ·Both stories posit human agency, though that is where the similarity ends. ·The motivations of the protagonists are totally different. ··It is Pandora’s selfish curiosity that drives her to open the enticing box, releasing swarms of horrible things – pestilence, famine, pain and so on. ·She unwittingly wreaks havoc upon the world. ··Jacob, on the other hand, knows exactly what he is doing, and moreover, he knows he is doing it to himself. ·Although he suffers, he is not a victim. ·He maintains his dignity to the last. ·“Each of us has a name given to us by the sea – and by the way we die.” ·His name was Israel, who struggled with God and with human beings, and prevailed, even in death.

Our rabbinic sages wanted to think that Jacob retained a measure of control at the end of his life, despite his suffering. ·He remained able to derive some sense of meaning and purpose from the act of blessing his children and grandchildren, and thus was able to bear his pain. ···The Torah’s account of Jacob’s deathbed scene reflects well what I have experienced with the terminally ill over many years. ·It is not suffering, per se, that most dying people seem to fear: ·it is a loss of the dignity and the experience of suffering without purpose or hope.

Jacob was truly blessed if he was indeed able to do what he needed to do, and then die, seemingly at will. ·Too many are denied this fitting ending to our life on earth – a chance to die in our own way. ·That is why I will continue to support Dignity in Dying. ·But whatever your views are on the assisted dying debate, I would urge everyone to write an advance medical directive so that relatives and friends can help those who are terminally ill to live as well as can – not necessarily as long as they can. ··That is what I take the commandment to ‘Choose Life’ to be all about.