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Parashat Vayehi 5782

December 17, 2021

A D’var Torah for Parashat Vayehi
By Rabbi Marc Rudolph (’04)

Click HERE for an audio recording of this Dvar Torah


In Act ll of Richard the Second, Shakespeare tells us that:


The tongues of dying men

Enforce attention like deep harmony:

Where words are scarce, they are seldom spent in vain,

For they breathe truth/ that breathe their words in pain.


This week’s parasha recounts the dying words of Yaakov avinu. As you recall,  Jacob has brought his entire family to Egypt and for seventeen years has been reunited with his beloved son Joseph. The parasha opens with Jacob summoning his children to his bedside. With his last words Jacob rebukes some of his sons, prays for others, gives blessings to some, recalls memories, shares psychological insights, delivers warnings and imparts hope. After blessing his youngest son, Benjamin, Jacob speaks no more. The Torah tells us that he gathers his feet into his bed and is “gathered to his people” (Gen. 49:33) which is the Bible’s way of telling us that he has died. The Torah also recounts the  death of Joseph in this week’s parasha.   With his last words, Joseph reassures his family that G-d has not forgotten about them. He makes his family promise that when they return to the Promised Land, they will take his bones with them for burial in his home (Gen. 50:25).


This week’s prophetic portion contains the dying words of another great man in the Bible, that of King David. David is of course a great poet-king. Tradition ascribes to King David the writing of the Psalms. But David was also a warrior and a politician. In this death-bed scene, David is speaking to his son and his successor to the throne, Solomon. He instructs Solomon to be strong and to follow the teachings of Moses. Then King David turns to unfinished business. He instructs Solomon to deal harshly with two enemies of David so that they should not go unpunished for actions they took against David in the past. He also instructs Solomon to continue to support a man who befriended David in the past. Then King David dies.


Shakespeare writes that when time is short, and words are precious, as on a deathbed, they have a significance that beg attention. Indeed, throughout history people have been fascinated by the final words of famous people. Is it true that they carry deep meaning? Steve Jobs was reported to have confessed on his deathbed that his great wealth and fame had brought him little happiness. It was widely reported that with his final breaths, Jobs said, “The wealth I have won in my life I cannot bring with me. What I can bring is only the memories precipitated by love.” Only that was not true. He never said anything like that. According to Steve Job’s sister, his last words were, “Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow.”


When Groucho Marx was dying, he let out one last quip: “This is no way to live!”


When Benjamin Franklin lay dying at the age of 84, his daughter told him to change position in bed so he could breathe more easily. Franklin’s last words were, “A dying man can do nothing easy.”


When Harriet Tubman was dying in 1913, she gathered her family around and they sang together. Her last words were, “Swing low, sweet chariot.”


Frank Sinatra died after saying, “I’m losing it.”


Marie Antoinette stepped on her executioner’s foot on her way to the guillotine. Her last words: “Pardonnez-moi, monsieur.”


Sir Winston Churchill’s last words were, “I’m bored with it all.”


Clearly, few people reach the eloquence of Jacob, of Joseph, or of David, in their final words. There is a way, however, that our final words can be more memorable, and more significant, than those of the above.  Judaism has the tradition of leaving an ethical will. This is a written document passed onto our survivors that articulates our values, memories, and hopes for the future. In their book, Ethical Wills & How to Prepare Them: A Guide to Sharing Your Values from Generation to Generation,  Rabbi Jack Riemer and Dr. Nathaniel Stampfer collected almost 100 ethical wills from both famous and ordinary people. The book also operates as a “how to” to write one’s own ethical will.


Writing an ethical will is not easy, as evidenced by our own experience here at Congregation Beth Shalom. A few years ago we had a multi-session workshop on writing an ethical will. Out of 20 or so people who started the process, to my knowledge, only one of us (not me) accomplished the goal of writing their own ethical will. In the introduction to the above cited book on Ethical Wills, the authors contemplate why it is, in fact, such a difficult task. They conclude 1) It is difficult for us to face our own mortality, to write something that is meant to be read after our death 2) To write an Ethical Will requires “convictions” – the ability to articulate our own values and the values we want to transmit to our children. Today, in an era where the highest value we may hold is the ability to choose for oneself, we find it difficult to tell our children how we think they should live their lives. We want them to be happy, and whatever way they might find happiness is fine with us. 3) To write an ethical will requires some knowledge of the Jewish tradition.  Many Jews  are not confident in their understanding of Jewish tradition, and therefore they give up in their effort.


Still, one need not be steeped in Jewish thought, nor be a philosopher, to have one’s last words remembered. Here, as an example from the book, is an ethical will from a working class Jewish immigrant to the United States from Riga, Latvia:


“My dear children:  I am writing this at the bank. This is what I want from you children: Evelyn, Bernice and Allen to be there for one another – good sisters and brother. Daddy and I love the three of you very much, and we did our best raising you and gave you the best education we could afford. Be good to each other. Help one another if, ‘G-d forbid’ in need. This is my wish.  Love all of you, Your Mother.”


Although simple on the surface I am certain it had a profound effect on this woman’s children as it comes straight from her heart. We should all think about what we want our last words to be. As Shakespeare says, our truest, most lasting words are often those we speak at the end.


Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Marc Rudolph (’04) is the Senior Rabbi at Congregation Beth Shalom in Naperville, Illinois and is the current President of the Chicago Board of Rabbis.