Rabbi Miriam Berkowitz through the use of our ancestors’ acts in this week’s Torah portion, Va’yechi, argues not to delay creating an ‘Ethical Will’. The importance of creating this legacy document can assist in the creation of positive memories for one’s family, instead of adding to angst and difficult decisions. It is of utmost importance for all of us.
This parasha is fertile ground for any chaplain, social worker, nurse, physician, family member or friend who helps older people reflect on their live, tie up loose ends, and make peace with family members in their golden years or toward the twilight of life, whenever that may be.
In this parasha, both Jacob and Josef show a clear awareness of their mortality and, by speaking openly about it with their children and grandchildren, create opportunities for blessing, closure and passing on their last wishes.
Indeed, we can consider Jacob the first author of an ethical will.
In Genesis 48:21 just after blessing his grandsons Manasseh and Ephraim,
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ אֶל־יוֹסֵ֔ף הִנֵּ֥ה אָנֹכִ֖י מֵ֑ת׃
“Israel says to Joseph, here I am about to die:”
They go back to calling him Israel, not Jacob, and he says to Joseph he is about to die, but promises God will be with you and will bring you back to the land of your ancestors.
By showing he is aware of his mortality he is creating the opportunity for this important discussion. Then he called his sons around him and told them what will happen in the future and he blessed them, each according to his personality and what he wished for them.
The parasha goes to the blessing of each and tells him where he wants to be buried.
The scene is very poignant and has been portrayed in many famous paintings.
Here is one from Rembrandt van Rijn [completed in 1656] the famous Dutch painter. You see the sons of the family and the fancy bed and of everybody gathered around listening and comfortable with the open conversation.
And contemporary Jerusalem artist Nina Meridor also uses biblical archetypes as an inspiration for her art. She has a series of paintings of wrestling, blessing, family and overcoming challenges. In this case, the paintings were of Jacob and Esau but the feeling that even within a difficulty you can find blessing is a message that applies to our parashah, too.
Jacob goes on to explain exactly where he wants to be buried, in the ancestral cave of the Machpelah. He begins to talk very fondly about his wife and parents and grandparents.
So this is what I consider saying what you would want for your funeral wishes. It helps the people know what you would want and have less stress when they are trying to carry out your wishes. This would lead to fewer disagreements. So for no other reason than that, I recommend being honest about, not being afraid to talk about death.
In my experience as a chaplain the person who is dying really knows it and often other family members try to sugar coat everything. But, I think that honesty enables a much better family conversation.
So we hear about the cave that the family bought from Ephron the Hittite.
שָׁ֣מָּה קָֽבְר֞וּ אֶת־אַבְרָהָ֗ם וְאֵת֙ שָׂרָ֣ה אִשְׁתּ֔וֹ שָׁ֚מָּה קָבְר֣וּ אֶת־יִצְחָ֔ק וְאֵ֖ת רִבְקָ֣ה אִשְׁתּ֑וֹ וְשָׁ֥מָּה קָבַ֖רְתִּי אֶת־לֵאָֽה׃
“There Abraham and his wife Sarah were buried; there Isaac and his wife Rebekah were buried; and there I buried Leah.”
When Joseph is at towards the end of his life he also gives instructions to his descendants, that he does not want to remain in Egypt so he has to be embalmed there temporarily but when the Israelites leave Egypt he makes them swear to bring up his bones to Israel.
The Biblical word for burial is “being gathered unto one’s ancestors,” and the expression is:
והוא נאסף אל אבותיו
You can just imagine the sort of liminal time and remembering your ancestors and you hope that maybe in the future you will be reunited with them.
The practice of ethical wills was very popular in the Middle Ages with famous rabbis and people writing long missives to their children. We are seeing a renaissance now. Rabbi Jack Reimer and Rabbi Elana Zaimen wrote books about Jewish ethical wills, and really anyone can do it.
The goal is not to compel your descendants to live according to your wishes but to give them a letter or video or book to keep and cherish.
It is never too soon to start writing this document, but if people are scared by the word ‘will’ and are reluctant to think of their own mortality, they can call it a ‘Legacy Letter’ or, as Rabbi Zaimen calls it, a ‘Forever Letter.’
If you do not like the part about reflecting on your life, you may at least give them some words of wisdom. It may avoid difficult decisions for your survivors and give them the satisfaction of knowing that they are carrying out your wishes.
You do not have to be a great writer or scholar to write an ethical will, just sit down in a quiet place, take out a good old fashioned pen and paper and write a few lines. This could be the greatest gift you ever give your children or if you don’t have children other relatives, friends, or who knows, maybe even people thousands of years from now will be reading your words like we are reading about the patriarchs in Parashat Vayechi.
SHAVUA TOV FROM SCHECHTER