Weekly Sermon

Weekly Sermon

VAYECHI 5780

With gratitude to my mentor, Rabbi Benjamin Blech. For more see If Gd is Good, chapter 9.

Ask people to tell you what they think is good about old age and the only thing most of them will be able to muster up is the famous saying of Maurice Chevalier: “It beats the alternative!” When asked about their final illness they’ll probably tell you: “When it’s my time to go, please let it be quick. Let me die peacefully in my sleep and be spared the fear of knowing that death is near.”

In today’s Torah portion (Gen. 49:33) we have the final illness and death of Father Jacob. It’s a touching scene as Jacob blesses each of his children, draws his feet onto the bed and passes with his family surrounding him. Having been through illness and death with more people than I care to count, I’m tempted to ask, “Why is there illness in the 1st place?” To put it bluntly, aging, pain and a final lingering illness are commonly considered 3 major curses. But as strange as it may sound, according to the Midrash (Bereishit Rabba Toldot 65:9), each one of these 3 came to the world as Gd’s response to a request by one of our patriarchs and was bestowed as a gift by Gd.

I can’t now get into why Abraham asked Gd for aging or why Isaac asked for suffering—that we’ll have to leave for another time—but why did Jacob ask for a final illness?

How did people die before Jacob? We have a remnant of it when we say, “Gezunteit” or labriyut (to your health) or whatever you say to convey a hope for life when a person sneezes. People thought that with a sneeze one died suddenly. The neshama went out through the nose and that was it…and that’s why we bless someone when we hear a sneeze.

When it’s your time to die, would you want to die suddenly? One could argue that it’s a blessing because there would be no lingering illness and you would be spared a great ordeal. But on the other hand, there’s something missing when you die suddenly. And so the Midrash teaches: Adam meyt b’lo choli, v’eyno m’yashev beyn banav, “If a person dies without sickness, he won’t have the opportunity to settle things with his children—to settle his affairs, to make peace with those he has wronged, to ask forgiveness of Gd.” So Jacob says, “I want to know when I’m going to die—at least 2 or 3 days before my time. Please, Gd, give me the gift of such a final illness.” Gd replies, “A good thing you have asked for. And from you, it shall begin.”

What’s the lesson here? It is that we should think things through when we’re healthy and take care of our affairs. The only problem is, who does? No one wants to think about it. Even to the extent of a purchasing a burial plot. I knew people who died without wills, without life insurance and left all kinds of debt for their families. My Gd how can they do that? Because they didn’t want to think about it. 

In today’s Torah reading we find, for the 1st time, the word for serious illness. A messenger comes to Joseph and tells him, Hiney avicha choleh (Behold, your father is choleh—ill). And shortly thereafter Jacob dies, but not before he has the opportunity to bid a final farewell to his family.

Jacob could have departed from this world in the same way as everyone else did then—a sneeze and you’re gone. Sounds great to me. No worry…no stress…no anxiety…not even the sad scene of a family sitting by the deathbed, tearfully coming to terms with an imminent tragedy. What was Jacob thinking? What did he see as the gift—the benefit of a final illness?

When, as a young rabbi, I would be called to the bedside of a dying person, I would often ask the family, “Does the patient know that he/she is dying?” Sometimes the family said yes; sometimes the family said no. But if I had the opportunity to speak to that person, invariably I would learn that he knew the truth—although he preferred not to discuss it with the family. It was as if both sides were playing a game—the family didn’t want to discuss death with the sick person so as not to upset him, and the patient didn’t want to discuss it with the family so as not to frighten them.

Why do people often have a divinely implanted premonition that they’re going to die soon? 1st, it allows you to “prepare to meet your Maker.” How? Clearly, no need to pack your bags. But there’s an opportunity to unload your bags. Our tradition tells us that even a moment of sincere repentance can undo a lifetime of sin. There’s opportunity to make amends for sins against others which only they can forgive here on Earth. There’s time in these last moments to rectify things that might have gone uncorrected if the person had died suddenly.

In the case of Jacob, all his sons are called to his bedside, and he blesses each one individually. But Jacob doesn’t say, “You should have a good life, a healthy life, a prosperous life,” or “You should accomplish this or that.” Jacob’s blessings are actually instructions—and for some of his sons, even criticism. So why are they called blessings when Jacob is telling off his sons!?

These are blessings because he’s pointing out their character flaws so they’ll have a better understanding of their failings. It’s like he’s telling each one, “My son, this is your challenge on in life, and this is what you need to work on.” So why didn’t he do it earlier before he was facing death? Perhaps he wasn’t ready to say it until then or perhaps his sons weren’t ready to hear it. And then Jacob made his children promise (Gen. 49:29), “Please don’t make me stay here in Egypt. Bury me in Israel with my family.” And in today’s Haftorah, King David on his deathbed exhorts his son Solomon, who will succeed him, to walk in the ways of Gd and His Torah. He then tells him about so and so who harmed him and about so and so who helped him and to use his wisdom as to what to do to them.

There is a Halachic (Jewish Law) dimension to this as well—a principle in the Talmud (Taanit 21a, Gitin 14b) known as: Mitzva l’kayeym divrey hameyt (a mitzvah to fulfill the words of one who is dying). If one who is dying asks you to do something, then it’s powerful. Many times people have said to me, “My father said this to me on his last day...” or “My mother asked me to do this and this…” Is there a person who wouldn’t do something that a parent asked them to do at the very end of life?

Once a congregant, who only came to shul on the High Holidays suddenly started coming every Shabbos. I couldn’t help myself and asked him what caused this spiritual awakening. “Rabbi,” he said to me, “on his deathbed, my father said to me, ‘It would mean so much to me if you found your way back to shul.’ So, showing up here every week is the least I can do to honor his memory.”

A very wealthy individual who was not known for her philanthropy suddenly endowed several major institutions with considerable gifts. Why? She said, “Because my mother, before she died, begged me to help others with some of the great gifts Gd has bestowed on me.”

So now we see the benefits of such a final illness, let us pray that when our time comes, our final illness will be meaningful and of short duration and that we all pass from this world in our sleep with the kiss of Gd. Amen!

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