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Parshat Vayehi: Genesis 47:28-50:26; I Kings 2:1-12.

This Shabbat Genesis concludes with the death of patriarch Jacob. Until now, we hear only brief details regarding the deaths of personalities and there is no mention of any illnesses preceding a death. Jacob becomes the first of our ancestors to be identified as sick. 

As Jacob nears the end, his son Joseph is informed of his father’s illness, prompting Joseph to see Jacob. Joseph is told: Hineh Avicha Choleh — Behold, your father is sick. At first glance, the Hebrew word Hineh (behold) connotes surprise, urgency and indicates that something unusual is going on. But we have to imagine that Joseph’s elderly father, terminally ill at age 147, should not have caught Joseph off guard. What could it mean?

Bereshit Rabbah, Toldot 65 teaches that it was Jacob who demanded that sickness be put into the world. In this Midrash, Jacob is pictured as saying to the Holy One: “Master of the Universe, if a person should die without first being ill, he will not be able to resolve his affairs among his children and the members of his family. But if he is sick for a period of days, it would give the time needed to make arrangements.” The Holy One responded: “By your life, you have demanded a good thing and it will begin with you.”

Rabbi Joseph Krakoff
Rabbi Joseph Krakoff

The Midrash helps us understand then the deathbed scene in Chapter 49 when Jacob is surrounded by his children and grandchildren, he uses those moments to speak honestly and to bless his family, conveying his values and an ethical will he hopes will guide all of them.

As a result of Jacob’s end-of-life plea that the Almighty not take his soul until his family assembles around him, we learn the gift of saying goodbye. This opportunity is not possible when a person dies suddenly and unexpectedly. When someone is terminally ill and their health is rapidly declining, usually there is a special opportunity to gather with loved ones and share memories as well as words of gratitude and love. 

It is particularly important for the dying person to hear that their life was meaningful and that their legacy will be perpetuated.

Thankfully, Jewish ritual contains a special prayer called the “Vidui,” recited at end of life, often at the bedside, ideally by the person themselves or by a family member, friend or clergyperson on their behalf. This prayer expresses faith in God and creates a place for forgiveness and reconciliation, allowing for the healing of rifts and misunderstandings so one can leave this world in purity.      The “Vidui” provides a powerful prayer experience of finality that will never be forgotten, and we have our patriarch Jacob to thank for giving us such a beautiful, meaningful and blessed way to say goodbye. 

Rabbi Joseph H. Krakoff is the senior director of the Jewish Hospice and Chaplaincy Network.

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