Parashat Vayehi

December 15, 2010 | Filed in: Bereshit, Divrei Torah, News

By Simcha Raphael

With Parashat Vayehi, the Book of Genesis reaches its grand finale. Jacob and his extended family are gathered in the land of Egypt, and first, the illustrious Patriarch himself dies; then, subsequently the complex, distinguished life of Joseph comes to an end.

What do we learn from these concluding chapters of Genesis that can offer us a relevant model for dealing more openly with dying, death and grief in our families and communities?

The time drew near for Israel to die (Gen. 47:29). With death immanent, Jacob speaks calmly with his family. There is no equivocation, no denial of death. We see here a complete willingness to accept death realistically. This contrasts to stories we often hear where families deny death, and cannot speak openly with each other. Jacob’s exemplary model impacts his son Joseph. Later we see Joseph encountering his own mortality with similar openness saying to his bothers: “Behold I am about to die” (Gen 50:24).

We are affected not only by how people die, but how those around us talk about death, how they grieve. The attitude towards death exemplified by Jacob and Joseph invites us to ask: Who are our models for dealing with death? What did we learn in our own families of origin? And what attitudes are we passing on to our children?

In addition to a calm acceptance of mortality, Jacob engages in a life review, reflecting upon how “God Almighty appeared to me at Luz in the land of Canaan… and said to me, ‘I am going to make you fruitful and will increase your numbers… and I will give this land as an everlasting possession to your descendants after you” (Gen. 48:3-4). Jacob also recalls his life’s pain and losses: “[And]to my sorrow, Rachel died in the land of Canaan(Gen. 48:7). And even more, as part of his process of conscious dying, Jacob blesses his children, sharing loving yet painfully honest feelings. In all these reflections, Jacob is doing what Swiss psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross refers to as “finishing business”, a necessary and healthy part of the process of dying.

Jacob then gives clear instructions: “Bury me with my fathers in… the cave in the field of Machpelah, near Mamre in Canaan, which Abraham bought as a burial place from Ephron the Hittite ” (Gen. 49:29-30).

In making sure his estate is in order, Jacob teaches by example, how important it is to communicate with family members about legal wills, advance directives, purchase of cemetery plots, ethical wills, burial requests, etc. The process involved in preparing any of these can be challenging and emotionally laden. This parashah invites us to ask if we ourselves are comfortable speaking with loved ones about death. And, even more, are our congregations collectively prepared to deal with people’s deathbed and burial needs?

Following Jacob’s death, Joseph devotedly arranges his father’s funeral, in accordance with Egyptian practice. “Joseph directed the physicians in his service to embalm his father Israel… taking a full forty days… And the Egyptians mourned for him seventy days” (Gen. 50:2-3).

With the allotted time of mourning complete, Joseph requests of Pharaoh permission to bury Jacob in Canaan. Accompanied by an extensive Egyptian retinue, Joseph, his brothers and kin, left Goshen and “came to the threshing floor of Atad, beyond the Jordan, and there they … made a mourning for his father seven days” (Gen. 50:10).

Joseph honors natural rhythms of grief and teaches us something important about mourning and bereavement. Too often we meet families who want to run from the cemetery back into life allocating no time for mourning. One operating cultural belief is grief ignored might go away, one need not feel the pain of loss. Yet Judaism teaches us “to everything there is a season,” one cannot hurry grief any more than one can deny it. Joseph’s actions remind us to honor the organic nature of grief, reflected clearly in Jewish traditions of shiva, shloshim and Kaddish.

We are living in a time in which profound shifts are taking place in dealing with dying and death. Today more than one-third of deaths in North America take place under care of a hospice program. Undoubtedly, Jewish tradition has much to offer towards a new approach to death care in our times.

In these final chapters of Genesis we are given a model for dealing with death with a quality of openness and integrity. And in affirming this model, for our families and our Jewish communities, we can affirm, as Judaism does, the inherent holiness of life.


Simcha Raphael, Ph.D., a rabbinical student at the Academy for Jewish Religion, teaches in the Jewish Studies program of Temple University, and is a Rabbinic Intern of the Jewish Hospice Network of Jewish and Family and Children’s Service, in Philadelphia, PA.