Jacob was on his deathbed. He called his son Joseph to his side. Holding Joseph and his sons close, Jacob lifted his hands and placed one on each of his two grandchildren and blessed them: Hamalach ha-goel oti mikol ra
Yivarech et ha-n’arim
Vikarei vahem sh’mi.
“The God in whose ways my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has been my shepherd from my birth to this day, the Angel who has saved me from harm, bless these two lads. And may my name be recalled in them. “[Genesis 48:15-16]
Then he instructed them saying, “I am about to be gathered to my kin. Bury me with my fathers [and mothers] in the cave which is in the field of Ephron, in the land of Canaan…”
“When Jacob finished his instructions to his sons, he drew his feet into his bed, and breathing his last, he was gathered to his
people.” [Genesis 49:28-33]
And Joseph? He buried his father, as his father had wished, in the land of Canaan, Israel. He returned to Egypt, “where he lived to see children of the third generation…At length, Joseph said to his brothers, ‘I am about to die. God will surely take notice of you and bring you up from this land to the land God promised to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob…and when God has taken notice of you, you shall carry up my bones from here.” [Genesis 50:22-25]
The Torah records the stories of the lives of our founding families – the conflicts, the deceptions, the loves and anguish, the births and deaths. And in these stories that close the book of Genesis, the Torah tells us how the great patriarchs prepared for their dying. The Torah records the clear instructions they gave to their children. They each invoked the story of the generations that came before them, and each gave of their own blessings while entrusting to their children the unfolding of the future. Past – present – and future – all in a powerful, singular and explosive moment of life. All infused with God’s Presence, a sense of purpose and destiny.
There are many who, at the threshold of death, cannot bless those whom they leave behind. For some, death takes us suddenly; for others, the end of life robs us of our capacity to know, or to articulate, our hopes and our deepest feelings. And still for others, we are afraid to talk about our dying, and we miss the chance to say – to say our blessing – to bestow upon those who survive us our deepest blessing.
And so Yom Kippur invites and encourages us: don’t miss the chance. You will not live forever, and there are precious opportunities right now. I understand that it spooks us to talk about death. We fear that it might jinx us, or that it will compromise the quality and joy of our life right now. We don’t want to talk about saying good-bye.
But good-bye is built into the fabric of life. It doesn’t matter when it happens. Bringing our first, or last, child to nursery school. Taking leave of our parents – or an old friend, wondering if we’ll ever see them again. Grandparents and parents handing the Torah to their Bar or Bat Mitzvah. Making the decision to move – closing the door on one part of our life and opening a door to the next. Walking a child down the aisle of a wedding. One more child off to college. We love with all our hearts, knowing all along we will have to say good-bye. And so in these joyous moments – our children spread their wings – a 50th anniversary – a new birth – when we are so happy, we are also crying.
In the years when my own children were already grown up but before they were married with children of their own, we found ways to be together as adults. With Noam it was a week in Berlin – during the year that he was living and studying there. We shared the space of his studio – an intense week of immersion into his life in that city. The last night, we were sitting on the floor of his apartment, playing cards, when Noam suddenly spread a bunch of cards in his palm and said, “I’ve chosen a card,” he said. “Now tell me what card it is.” I looked at him – like, are you kidding me? “Concentrate,” he said. “I’m focusing on it, so concentrate.” I did. I ventured, “The two of spades.” He turned the card around. The two of spades. “Now you do it,” he said. “Can’t we just quit while we’re ahead?” I said. “No, you do it.” So I spread out my hand and I chose the card – and focused on it. “Easy,” said Noam, “the queen of hearts.”
We were in perfect sync. Timeless. Without age or generation. A moment out of time. And then I remembered that I was going to say good-bye. And in an instant, I was again the mother. Saying good- bye is what we do. We love with all our hearts, knowing all along we will have to say good-bye.
My sister-in-law, Diane, tells the story that when she and her husband, Jeff, had brought their first child to college and were heading back home to Los Angeles, they were both crying so hard they had to pull off the highway. And four years later, when he moved back home, they cried even harder.
Why do we cry? Because we know it is so fragile – so fleeting – it is only a moment. Their life and ours. Here but for a moment. And we hold on. We hold on to the times they were young – or the times we were young. Or we are filled with fear of the future – what if…? What if he won’t always love me? What if she leaves me? What if something terrible…? We know the nightmares. We either wish for a past that is no more, or we are frozen in fear because of what might someday be. And we miss out on life.
So here’s the craziness. Let go of it – and you will have it. Like the kids’ song, hold on to love, and you won’t have any. Hold on to spiritual power – claim it for yourself – and you have none. Share it, give it away – it will be part of you.
It’s not only love we hold onto. We hold onto anger. We hold on inside to those who have hurt us, refusing to forgive them, thinking we have power over them as long as we refuse to grant them pardon. But we have no power until we let it go. Until we release them, and relinquish all control, we will not be free to live.
As long as we are afraid of losing, or of saying good-bye, of letting go of hurt or of anger, we will not be able to fully embrace now. As long as we expect to live forever, a long as we expect that we will not suffer, that people we love will not get sick or die, we will always be unhappy and disappointed. If we hold on to the hope that nothing bad or sad will ever happen to us, our lives will be without joy. As long as we live in fear of dying, we will not be able to live.
And we are going to die. “I’m not afraid of dying,” Woody Allen said. “I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”
What would happen if we were there, really there, as much as we could? Jacob was on his deathbed. Holding Joseph and his sons close, he blessed them.
A few years ago, I received a call from someone outside the Kol Ami community, who wanted to know if I could help with the impending funeral of her friend. I didn’t feel at that time that I could. Would I be willing to talk with her? Yes, I said. The phone call came in; we were connected. I turned away from my computer screen, closed my eyes, and listened. It was easier for me to listen than usual. I had no preconceptions; no baggage. I didn’t know what she looked like; we had no history; I had no agenda. I just listened. She was expecting to die within days. Why the call? She was furious at her family – her family of origin. They had not spoken for decades. Should she speak to them before she died, she wanted to know. Should she take that risk?
There must had been some crime, some act of violence, some irreparable damage. I imagined terrible things. But then I really couldn’t imagine. I said to her, “I have no judgment about your anger. I do not know what your family did to you. I am sorry for the pain you bear. I have no judgment,” I repeated, “on whether you should or shouldn’t reach out. Only if you do, who knows what impact your reaching out might have long after you die.” There was only one question I knew in that moment to ask: “Do you want to die with this anger?” I asked her. She answered in a flash. “No,” she said.
After that, she needed no help, no advice.
I wouldn’t have known what happened next, but as the way the world turns, her funeral ended up at Kol Ami. I learned that she had been gay, and had loved and lived with a woman for decades. Her family had rejected her. (It’s hard to imagine how our hearts have changed and opened, for many of us only in the last few decades.) She grew older, never speaking with her brothers or parents, never meeting her nieces and nephews.
She chose to reach out to her family. I learned that she died with her nieces and nephews all around her in her bed – and her brothers vowed to carry on her legacy of openness and inclusion.
We think that the end of our lives represents only loss and diminishment. There is unbelievable power at the end of our life, concentrated power, that will last forever in the lives of those we leave behind. “I’ll miss you so much,” I said to Rosanne, what turned out to be the last night of her life. “You will find me in your heart,” she said to me. And because she said that to me, it is so much easier for me to find her in my heart. The blessings we give at the end of our lives last forever.
“When I was a second-year student at HUC-JIR,” writes Shira Stern, “I began volunteering at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, focusing on pediatrics, although I covered other floors when the need arose, especially when other chaplains were away. One particularly cold winter Friday, I was preparing to go home to make Shabbat, when I noticed a mislaid request for candles and wine to be delivered to a patient’s family. Coat on, sunset imminent, I wrestled with myself: ‘It’s late already; someone should have taken care of this; will they even still be there if they are Shabbat observant?’
“Gathering wine, challah rolls and electric lights, I made my way to the room, where a middle-aged woman was sitting just outside the door. In broken English, she thanked me for coming in, and when I responded in French, she began her story. They were recent immigrants from Syria and had traveled from the other side of the world to make a better life for their two teenage sons, buying in to a business with the husband’s brother. Two months later, her husband was diagnosed with stage-four liver cancer, and he was given little hope of recovery. She cried when she said this, cried harder when she wondered how to raise fatherless children, and wailed because she felt so alone. All the unsaid words a couple might share over a lifetime needed to be articulated now, but her husband had been semi-comatose for days; it was too late.
“Her two sons, sitting in chairs on either side of the bed, were studiously ignoring our conversation. I suggested we usher in Shabbat together, so I set up the lights on the bedside table, poured the wine, covered the rolls with a clean towel, and then drew the privacy curtain around us. Rivka asked that I lead, while she held on to her husband’s feet. I sang softly so as not to disturb the quiet in the room. As I lifted the Dixie cup to chant Kiddush, the patient lifted his hands and placed one on each boy’s head, reciting both the traditional blessing for sons, (the blessing of Jacob for his grandchildren), as well as [Yivarechicha – may God bless you and watch over you]. His wife stood stunned, unable to move. When I began to sing, the man sang with me, quickly, and without missing a beat.
“When it was over, every one of us was in tears, and I left them to savor the moment.
“By the time I had reached the lobby, the man had died.”
[CCAR Journal, Winter 2011]
Jacob was on his deathbed. He lifted his hands and placed one on each grandson’s head. Some day, he said, all of Israel will bless their children as I bless you now.
There is incredible power as we prepare to die. Undeniable, raw power at the end of life. And that power is here – right now – right here. Barely an hour ago, the machzor reminded us:
Who will live and who will die?
Who at their end and who not at their end?
“I sat in shul for years reading these words before I realized the answer. The answer to each of these questions is ‘me.’” [Rabbi Edward Feinstein, Mishkan Hanefesh, p. 206]
Some of us may be dealing with an imminent terminal diagnosis – but all of us are vulnerable. Life is precious for each one of us. Thinking about our dying could scare us to death, or it could free us up to live. And difficult conversations with those we love are sometimes the most liberating. I invite you to continue this conversation this afternoon at 3 (OR following services) in the Chapel in the Woods.
Palliative care professionals share this wisdom: there are five things we need to say to someone before they die: Thank you. I love you. I forgive you. Please forgive me. Good-bye.
Yom Kippur invites us to do the same:
I forgive you. Please forgive me. We find the people with whom we share our lives; we ask forgiveness, we forgive.
I love you. Find your power to bless. You have the power to bless others, to see the spark in them and to gently blow on the spark and give it life. You can bless your children, your friends, your partners. And the words of our tradition help. We have been blessing one another throughout these holy days – but the words belong to you every Shabbat. Please, put your arms around the people next to you and say after me,
Yivarechicha Adonai v’yishmirecha
May God bless you and watch over you
Ya’er Adonai panav eilecha viychuneka
May the light of God’s Grace shine on you
Yisa Adonai panav elilecha v’yasem l’cha shalom
May God be with you and bless you with peace
I forgive you.
Please forgive me.
I love you – the power you have to bless. Thank you.
“I don’t remember much about my Bar Mitzvah, “writes Rabbi Ed Feinstein. “I don’t remember more than a few words of my parsha, or what the rabbi said to me, or what I wrote in my Bar Mitzvah speech. But I do remember quite vividly the Bar Mitzvah that took place in our shul the week after mine. That boy, my classmate and friend, had lost his father to cancer just weeks before. His family decided to go ahead with his Bar Mitzvah. After reading his Torah portion, he stood before us and spoke about his gratitude. He shared gratitude for the time he spent with his dad between the bouts of chemotherapy, for the support and love of his mother and sister, for the kindness of the community. I remember that speech clearly, and I remember how he stood composed and resolute before the congregation as all of us wept. We wept for the sadness of his loss. And just as much, we wept out of wonder for the depth and wisdom he reflected.
“The human condition is terribly fragile. That’s the lesson of our holidays this time of year. And the only remedy for this fragility is our gratitude. Gratitude is the only thing stronger than our fear and our sadness.” Rabbi Ed Feinstein
We don’t have to wait for the last minute to say thank you. We can begin every day, every morning, with thank you. Modah ani. I thank You for reawakening my soul within me. We do not own our life; we don’t deserve it, we’re not entitled to it. It is all gift. All of it. Modah Ani. I thank you.
And good-bye? How do we say good-bye? Jewish tradition offers a prayer that we can say before we die, or that someone can say on our behalf. It’s on the card at your seats:
Elohai v’eilohei avotai v’imotai, My God and God of all who have gone before me, Author of life and death, I turn to You in trust. Although I pray for life and health, I know that I am mortal. If my life must soon come to an end, let me die, I pray, at peace.
If only my hands were clean and my heart pure. I confess that I have committed sins and left much undone, yet I know also the good that I did or tried to do. May my acts of goodness give meaning to my life, and may my errors be forgiven.
Protector of the bereaved and the helpless, watch over my loved ones. Into Your hand I commit my spirit; redeem it, O God of compassion and faithfulness.
Shma Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad.
Hear O Israel, the Eternal is our God, the Eternal is One
Just as we have a way to say thank you every morning, we have a way to say good-bye every night. The nighttime shma.
B’yado afkid ruchu b’eit ishan v’a-ira
Into Your Hand I commit my spirit
When I sleep and when I awake In life and its passing
You are with me, I will not fear.
And why say good-bye at night? Yes, we don’t know if it will be our last. Yes, to come clean, to be at peace. But maybe most of all, to say, I will not fear. Life is too great, too incredible, too great a gift. And if we are consumed with fear of dying, we will miss it. I love you and bless you. I thank you. I forgive you. Please forgive me. Good-bye. We say good-bye so we can live.
It’s the heart afraid of breaking
That never learns to dance
It’s the dream afraid of waking That never takes the chance It’s the one who won’t be taken Who cannot seem to give
And the soul afraid of dying That never learns to live.
B’yado afkid ruchi b’eit ishan v’a-ira
V’im ruchi g’viyati
Adonai li v’lo ira.
Shma yisrael adonai eloheinu adonai echad
May this Yom Kippur free you to live.