In spite of life’s troubles, allow legacy to live on

In this week’s parashah, Vayechi, we read the very first ethical will on record. It begins with an old, ill Jacob asking Joseph to take an oath that when he dies, Joseph will take him out of Egypt and bury him in the Cave of Machpelah, the burial site he purchased long ago in Canaan.
Jacob then gathers his other sons and proceeds to bless them, although these blessings can be better described as an overall assessment of their character.
But before he begins his individual addresses, he demands: (Genesis 49:2): “Assemble and hearken, O sons of Jacob; hearken to Israel your father — Hik’v-tzu v’shim-u bnai Yaacov, v’shimu el Yisrael avichem.” According to the Midrash, Jacob is concerned that after his death, his sons will forget where they came from and revert to idol worship. The sons respond to their father, “Hear, O Israel, Adonai is our G-d, Adonai alone.” In other words, the Shema, far from being the public declaration of faith that we know today, was a personal, private assurance from Jacob’s sons to their father on his deathbed, confirming, “Listen, Israel/Dad, Adonai is our one and only God, so no worries!”
Imagining this scene, I am filled with unexpected emotion tinged with perhaps a bit of jealousy. Thinking about it, despite the trials and suffering that Jacob encountered in his life, he experienced what I would call a “good death.” There he is, in his final moments, with his whole immediate family gathered around him. He’s blessed with the lucidity to be able to tell his family, individually, what he thinks of and imagines for them, both good and bad. He is assured that they will be faithful to their G-d and keep their Jewish identity intact. And he is promised that he will be brought to and buried at the Cave of Machpelah, the burial grounds of his ancestors. Our parashah ends with a similar scenario: Joseph, at the end of his life, prophesying that God would bring his family out of Egypt someday, and asking that, when that day came, his body would go out with them, back to his homeland. Both Jacob and Joseph can truly die, and rest, in peace. I wonder how many of us will get that opportunity.
Our parashah teaches us that we can make that happen by communicating our wishes, desires and hopes to those whom we love.
Though contemplating one’s own death is difficult, it is vitally important that we all do some pre-planning, or else we leave our loved ones in a difficult position. Most of you may already have written a will, but how many of you have a living will, or advanced directive? An advanced directive is a legal document that states your wishes for your health care in case you become unable to communicate those decisions later. It’s also vitally important to discuss organ donation, which our tradition supports on the grounds that it results in pikuach nefesh, the saving of a life. And it’s crucial that each of us designate, in writing, a medical power of attorney, someone who is charged with the responsibility of seeing that our wishes and needs are respected and followed.
And as our ancestors did before us, I would urge each of us to take the time to write an ethical will, defined by Rabbi Edith Mencher as, “A letter to loved ones conveying our hopes for their future and explaining our moral and spiritual values.” Rabbi Jack Riemer, co-editor of So that Your Values Live On: Ethical Wills and how to Prepare Them, states, “An ethical will is not an easy thing to write. In doing so, one confronts oneself. One must look inward to see what are the essential truths one has learned in a lifetime, face up to one’s failures, and consider what are the things that really count.”
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what I will say to my children when I sit down to write my ethical will. And I feel that so much of what I’d tell them they already know: Life is so short — don’t worry so much. Try, as best you can, to live in the present moment. Stop and say thank you every day. Don’t be afraid to be happy. Be kind, compassionate and continue to live by a strong moral and ethical code. Rejoice in who you are. Own your mistakes. Listen more than you speak. Establish a Jewish home, and a meaningful Jewish life, whatever you decide that means to you. Always be each other’s best friends. And, no matter what life throws at you, never lose your sense of humor.
Jacob faced his share of challenges in life, but after much moral (and physical) wrestling, in the end he had what mattered most: his family at his bedside, his blessings and desires expressed and the assurance of his children that his legacy would go on. May we all be so blessed.
Sheri Allen is the part-time cantor of Congregation Beth Shalom in Arlington.

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