Judaism: The Last Message
As B’reshit comes to a close, so does the life of Jacob. 147 eventful years of agony and occasional ecstasy are almost over. The patriarch is on his death bed. His children are gathered around him. Within minutes the curtain will fall. The pathos of the moment is indescribable, almost unbearable.
In one respect, however, Jacob is fortunate in his sunset. His body is weak but his mind is clear. He knows what is going on and can think clearly. He has things he wants to say and he is alert and able to say them. He ranges across his family; shrewdly and succinctly he sums up each one, their virtues, their failings, and their future. There is no whitewashing or pretence. He must speak now: there will be no other opportunity.
Why can we regard Jacob as fortunate at this uniquely serious and solemn moment? A patriarch is dying – and we call him fortunate? But Jacob does in fact have a privilege. Unlike others whose life slips away in unconsciousness he is able to say what needs to be said.
Yet even though we probably all dream of being able to say goodbye as Jacob did, we do not always get our wish – and some who do, lack the language to frame the last sentence or, God forbid, use the moment to blackmail their family emotionally or even curse them. We need an ethic of the ultimate… what to say, what not to say, and how to plan for the possibility that the last goodbye may not be possible.
What should one say or not say? Let the moment be constructive and dignified.
What can we do in case we are unable to articulate the goodbye? Think about it now and put something in writing, preferably in your own handwriting. Pray that the end will be, as the sages said of the death of Moses, a Divine kiss – a kiss which shows God approves of the way we have died.
The Supreme Chessed
Jacob asks his family to act with kindness and truth (chessed ve’emet) towards him and not bury him in Egypt. (Gen. 47:29).
The sages found the phrase chessed ve’emet very stimulating. The two words appear together so often that they must have an inbuilt link. Chessed does not always go with emet; if you act with chessed you sometimes contradict emet – and vice versa.
Since chessed comes first we have to presume it is the primary word and the secondary word qualifies it. Hence the Torah puts into Jacob’s mouth the request that the family act towards him with true kindness. True kindness is completely unselfish.
Often one does a kindly deed because – as the Pir’kei Avot tell us (4:2) – mitzvah goreret mitzvah, one good deed brings another in its train. If I do you a favour, you are likely to reciprocate and do me a favour in return. True kindness is where I do the good deed with no chance of reward.
The best example is acting kindly towards the dead, since they cannot return the favour. Jacob is asking for that kind of chessed since he is on his death-bed and will soon be unable to do anything for anyone else. A Jewish burial society is sometimes called Chevra Chessed Shel Emet, “A society dedicated to true kindness”.