As we experience the waning of light leading up to the very shortest day of the year, our Torah portion this week recalls the waning light of Jacob’s life. In parshat Vayechi, we read, “And when the time approached for Israel (Jacob) to die, he summoned his son, Joseph.” (Gen. 47, v. 29)
Just as we notice the shortening of the days at this season, our sages noted that Jacob was not in the process of dying when he asked for Joseph’s presence. Rather, he was at a point in his life in which he noticed a dimming of his vitality. This awareness prompted Jacob to set his affairs in order. For Jacob, this meant arranging that he not be buried in the land of Egypt, but rather that he be buried with his ancestors.
Just as important as Jacob’s actions is Joseph’s response. Joseph listens to his father. He doesn’t interrupt him, or change the subject, or say “Oh dad, why are you talking about this? You aren’t going to die." When a loved one asks another to make arrangements regarding their death, it can be uncomfortable. And we can respond with denial. Having to think about potential loss is painful and our human nature prompts us to move away from painful experiences.
As clergy, we often walk the path of mourning by your side. When families have not had conversations about their desires before grave illness or before a sudden loss, there is tremendous anguish. Our ancestors are role models in our Torah portion this week. We can be like Jacob, taking time to discover what is most important to us and what we want to share at a time when death is likely not imminent, thus giving our loved ones peace of mind. And we can be like Joseph, allowing space for our loved ones to say their piece. May we be like Jacob, garnering insight and bravery; and may we be like Joseph showing compassion and attentiveness.