Just before writing this Shabbat message to all of you, I was on a Zoom with a family whose 43-year-old daughter and sister died unexpectedly Tuesday evening. They are heartbroken, but they are not empty-handed. During the Zoom they showed me a framed letter she wrote for them several months ago simply to express her love. Neither she nor they knew that letter would be her last.
There are so many beautiful things in life that when they happen for the last time, we don’t actually know that they are happening for the last time. Jonathan Safran Foer put it this way: “No baby knows when the nipple is pulled from his mouth for the last time. No child knows when he last calls his mother ‘mama.’ No small boy knows when the book has closed on the last bedtime story that will ever be read to him. No boy knows when the water drains from the last bath he will ever take with his brother. No mother knows she is hearing the word mama for the last time. No father knows when the book has closed on the last bedtime story he will ever read.” I can attest to the truth of those words. My father suffered with Alzheimer’s for a decade. I did not know that my last conversation with him would be my last conversation with him—that his ability to speak would be there one day, and gone the next.
Jacob in this week's Torah portion is more fortunate. Yes, he is on his deathbed but at least he has the chance to say goodbye. Jacob has had his share of sorrow in life. He cheated his older brother Esau out of his birthright blessing. He was in turn deceived and cheated by his father-in-law. Jacob’s own sons lie to him and break his heart, telling him that their half-brother Joseph was dead, when in fact they had sold him into slavery. Jacob’s daughter Dina is raped and as a final insult, he has to send his children away to beg the mighty pharaoh of Egypt for food. Jacob’s was not an easy life. But somehow he managed to raise children in whose hands the destiny of an entire people would be placed.
Now, Jacob is dying. His eyes have grown milky white and dim, with rotting teeth and twisted beard he manages a final whisper into each of his son’s ears. In some cases, Jacob is harsh with his children, in others he is kind—but he is always honest. It is, after all, his last chance to guide his boys through life. These are, as the cliché goes, Jacob’s final words.
This idea of sharing our final words with our children and others whom we will leave behind to carry on our legacy becomes formalized by Jews in eleventh century Germany, France, and Spain in documents called “Ethical Wills.” There are volumes of them collected in libraries and online. We all spend a lot of time accumulating wealth and possessions to leave behind for others; hoping the material will somehow express to them the emotional. But why not leave our children and other loved ones a written account of our hopes and affection for them?
I have written my ethical will. It’s a work in progress because, like everyone, my life is a work in progress. Nevertheless, I offer it to you now as a humble example.
Dear Aaron and Hannah,
The finest moments of my life have been with you and mommy, sitting around our kitchen table, laughing. I never feel richer or more at peace with the world than those moments. That kind of love is more important than anything. Spend your life with a person as good as mommy and you will have many of those moments. And don’t worry, you will know in your heart when that person arrives. It is a powerful, healing, beautiful kind of love. Grasp it.
Have a healthy relationship with work. Do your best at it, but your work is not the same thing as your life. I often confused the two and hope you will less so. Spend time in nature. It will remind you of God, of true greatness; it will calm you, cause you to pause, breathe, stand still, listen. It will help you feel humble and small in profound and important ways. Think of me when you are out there; feel and know that my soul is with you.
Do not roll your eyes at religion. Celebrate what makes you different. There is much to learn from our ancestors, from prayer, the Sabbath, candles, warm bread and wine, generosity, and faith while gathered around a table with people you love—much.
When you worry, remember that most things turn out better than we expect. When anxiety, sorrow, loss, and pain come, lean on the people you love. Do not suffer alone; it is much worse that way. This is another reason you should look for someone like mommy to love. I would not have been able to breathe without her.
I used to love to dance but when I became a more public person I stopped dancing at weddings and parties. I allowed my fear of what others might think of me, fear of being a spectacle, to keep me from dancing. I regret that now. It was a bad example to you and robbed me of joy. Don’t let fear of what others might think keep you from dancing or singing or loving. Let nothing and no one suppress what your soul longs for. Live so that you do not die with a longing soul.
Count your blessings. When you are feeling less than, or want more, or are mired in self-pity, which happens to us all, look around and count your blessings again and again and again until you tally one hundred of them. Everything is easier when you are grateful.
Feel for others. People behave badly because they are damaged. Let your first impulse be one of empathy. That being said, there will be a handful of people in your life who demand too much—who are mean, narcissistic, negative—causing you to feel terrible about yourself. Cut these people out of your life. You cannot fix them.
Be good and the rest works out. See the world with the people you love. Cherish time; it matters so much more than things. Mine with you and mommy has made my life worth living. I wish for you that kind of love now. I wish for you that kind of love when I am gone. Say Kaddish and light a candle for me when the time comes. Feel its warmth and know I love you still.
It is fitting that we read this Torah portion this week. Like the end of one year and the beginning of the next, it is a reminder that time and life are fleeting and finite. One day, it all just…ends. The isolation of the pandemic, the anxiety, the exhaustion, the limitations, and the death too, ideally have taught us that no matter how many times we hold each other, kiss and love each other, and no matter how many times we say I love you—it is never enough. So let us learn from the Torah and that soulful 43-year-old woman to write of our love for those to whom our words can bring comfort, meaning, and love long after, especially after, like so many things, we too are gone…