By Rabbi Avi Mitzner
“There was a survey once,” said Carter, the character played by Morgan Freeman in the movie “The Bucket List.” “A thousand people, when asked if they could know in advance, would they want to know the exact day of their death, 96% of them said ‘no.’ I always kind of leaned toward the other 4%. I thought it would be liberating, knowing how much time you had left to work with. It turns out, it’s not.”
In case you are unfamiliar with the movie, here is the premise:
Two men, blue-collar mechanic Carter Chambers (played by Freeman) and billionaire Edward Cole (played by Jack Nicholson), meet for the first time in the hospital after both have been diagnosed with terminal illness.
During their time together in a hospital room, Carter begins writing a “bucket list” of things to do before he “kicks the bucket.” After hearing he has less than a year to live, Carter discards the list. Edward finds it the next morning and urges Carter to do everything on the list, offering to finance the trip for both of them. After some arguing, Carter agrees that they begin their adventures. They go skydiving, drive a Shelby Mustang, fly over the North Pole, eat dinner at the best restaurant in France, visit the Taj Mahal in India, ride motorcycles on the Great Wall of China, attend a lion safari in Tanzania and visit the base of Mount Everest in Nepal.
As we begin Parashat Vayehi, our ancestor Yaakov is nearing death. The Torah tells us, “Some time afterward, Yoseph was told, “Your father is ill.”’ (Genesis 48:1) The Midrash, picking up on the fact that this is the first time in the Torah where someone is described as falling ill prior to dying, tells us that until Yaakov, ‘From the day when the heavens and the earth were created no man was ill, who sneezed and lived, but in every place where he happened to be, whether on the way or in the market, and when he sneezed, his soul went out through his nostrils; until our father Yaakov came and prayed for mercy concerning this, and he said before the Holy One, blessed be He: Sovereign of all the worlds! Do not take my soul from me until I have charged my sons and my household!” (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer 52:6)
Knowing he is about to die, Yaakov desired to use his remaining time productively. Concentrating his mind on what was important to him, Yaakov asks the question, “Now that I know that I am dying, what must I accomplish prior to my death?” His answer is quite different from that of the movie. Yaakov wants to ensure that his household will remain faithful and will carry on the tradition that began with his grandfather Avraham. He essentially sets out to give them an “ethical will” so they will continue in his footsteps. He proceeds to bless Yoseph’s sons, Ephraim and Menashe, followed by his own sons.
The Talmud (Pesachim 56a), in discussing the origin of our recitation of the line “Barukh shem kivod malkhuto l’olam va’ed,” “Blessed is the Name of His glorious kingdom for all eternity” after the Shema, pictures Yaakov in our parashah as worried that perhaps one of his children has abandoned the faith. When his children responded by reciting to him the words of the Shema proclaiming their faith, Yaakov uttered these words in relief, knowing that he had successfully passed on his most important legacy.
Facing our mortality has a way of focusing our minds on what is truly important. But we need not wait until then to discuss and teach our values. The earlier the conversation begins, the more we can engage our loved ones. Let’s use the invitation of Parashat Vayehi to open up this discussion with our loved ones and to talk about what truly matters.
Rabbi Avi Mitzner is ritual and cemetery director at Congregation Shearith Israel.He is a member of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas.