Jewish learning Fierce Legacy Work

By Rabbi Mónica Gomery `17

Parashat Vayechi (Genesis 47:28-50:26)

This dvar Torah is written in loving memory of Tristen Sloane, z’’l.

  • The Art of Dying Well: A Practical Guide to a Good End of Life.
  • A Beginner’s Guide to the End: Advice for Living Life and Facing Death.
  • Advice for Future Corpses (And Those Who Love Them): A Practical Perspective on Death and Dying.

These are a handful of titles, among dozens, of books within the field of end-of-life care and death studies. Beginning in the 1970s, the hospice movement sought to stage an intervention on the death-denying character of Western culture, reframing our communal relationship to dying, and supporting the dying in meaningful ways. This cultural intervention was not new. If anything, it was ancient. And Torah has its own cultural intervention on death-denial, its own hospice movement, which we might call Parshat Vayechi.

Vayechi is the closing parashah of the book of Genesis, and in this way, the theme of endings is already in the background. The text tells us,

וַיִּקְרְבוּ יְמֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל לָמוּת,

The time drew near for Israel to die. (Genesis 47:29)

Jacob, here called by his other name Israel, is 147 years old. He knows his days are numbered. Aware of his mortality, Jacob calls his son Joseph to his side, to detail his final wishes, his end-of-life plans. “Do not bury me here in Egypt,” he tells Joseph, giving a clear directive, “bury me in the land where my ancestors are buried.”

But in the next verse, there is a seeming redundancy:

וַיְהִי אַֽחֲרֵי הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה וַיּאמֶר לְיוֹסֵף הִנֵּה אָבִיךָ חֹלֶה

It came to pass after these incidents that [someone] said to Joseph, “Behold, your father is ill” (Genesis 48:1).

Why, after Jacob has already revealed to Joseph that he’s dying, and articulated his hopes for burial, does the text tell us he grew ill? Perhaps to offer us a model for end-of-life planning. First, Jacob shared his requests for burial, and after that, acharei ha’devarim ha’eileh, he fell ill. In modern terms, this might signal the shift from elder care to hospice care.

The Talmud teaches that Jacob is the first person to fall sick prior to death (Bava Metzia 87a). This gave Jacob time to prepare for death, to share his final wishes, set his affairs in order, and focus on his legacy. To spend time with his family and loved ones at his bedside. To say goodbye.

Perhaps what the Talmud means is not literally that Jacob was the first person to fall ill before death (surely someone before him had died from illness), but rather that Jacob is the first person in Torah to intentionally prepare his deathbed. He orchestrates what we now refer to as “a good death,” one that includes dignity, agency, relationship closure, self-reflection, and spiritual wellness; one that is free from avoidable distress and suffering.

By contrast, the death of Isaac, Jacob’s father, is characterized by deceit, sibling rivalry, and miscommunication, which unfortunately is too often the case when families gather around the deathbeds of relatives. Isaac had meant to give Jacob’s brother Esau a blessing prior to dying, but was instead duped into blessing Jacob himself.

Perhaps Jacob’s role in his father’s attempted and bungled end-of-life blessing serves as a source of reflection later, when he decides how to prepare for his own death. Unlike his father, Jacob has enough blessings to go around for all 12 of his sons. Granted, some of these “blessings” are quite severe. But Jacob’s message is unique to each son’s distinct personality and destiny.

Each measure of advance preparation offers time to say goodbye. Time for what my friend Tristen Sloane called “fierce legacy work.”

Almost exactly a year ago, I worked with Tristen, a congregant of mine at Kol Tzedek Synagogue, on constructing a dvar Torah for Parashat Vayechi. Tristen, who used they/them pronouns, had lived for years with a progressive illness, and was themself, like Jacob, wrestling with questions of mortality and legacy, what blessings they wanted to leave behind, and how they would be remembered. They were 26 years old.

The dvar Torah Tristen delivered at Kol Tzedek on Shabbat Vayechi 5782 was a brilliant reflection on Jacob’s story, and on their own. It overflowed with Torah about illness, disability justice, and what they called “rebellious mourning,” an embrace of grief and care work that confronts the hard and beautiful truths too often denied and locked away by American culture. These truths were embedded like threads of gold through the parashah and illuminated by Tristen’s own interpretations. I learned so much from this teaching.

Tristen, beloved scholar, activist, and friend, died that April. Their memory is a tremendous blessing in the life of everyone who knew them. They are both deeply missed and tenderly remembered.

One of Tristen’s hidushim that has powerfully stayed with me about the story of Jacob’s death is the way Torah flips the script on conventional understandings of caregiving and agency. Even in Jewish narratives around bikur holim (visiting the sick) or deathbed scenes, we might expect to see care that flows directionally from the healthy to the sick, or from the living to the dying. But even when dying, even at his most fragile and seemingly limited, Jacob pours care outward to others. In Tristen’s own words:

“Transactional and one-directional models of grief dominate the American imagination in which the grieving person’s heartache spirals outwards and care spirals inwards. The blessings that Jacob bestows upon his sons disrupt this binary equation. [They] shout that sick and dying people remain agents of care, blessing, and dignity from within our illnesses, debility, and grief. Jacob’s story centers not only the heart-wrenching physical and emotional struggle of progressive illness and death, as seen through his fight to sit up in bed, but also all that is luminous, resistant, and triumphant about Crip care. He is able to give tremendous love to his sons and continue to serve as a trusted wise person for his community from his deathbed, and the intimate blessings he bestows upon the people he will leave behind… shows us that we grieve and care together, in vibrant and vulnerable community. Rather than being helpless receptacles of care, Vayechi teaches us that disabled and ill people remain agents of mutual, communal blessing and care work, throughout our entire experience, and well after we leave this earth.”

In the months before they died, I experienced the “fierce legacy work” that Tristen described and that Jacob models. I was blessed to be present for conversations about how they would be remembered, who would remember them, what they felt they were leaving behind, and what they might be moving toward. We spoke about their thoughts on death and God, their deep gratitude for life. Their goodbyes overflowed with care and love. A tremendous outpouring of blessings moved in two directions—from Tristen toward their loved ones, and from their loved ones to Tristen.

It was a mutual honoring of their life, of our lives braided together, of the future, which we build in collaboration with the beloveds we’ve lost.

May it be so. May we learn from Parshat Vayechi, and from our own experiences of loss, how to honor the generous lessons of our human mortality. In Tristen’s words, may this parashah serve as a “scaffold for conscious dying,” and help us face the inevitable mystery of death with our hearts open wide.

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Mónica Gomery was ordained from the Hebrew College Rabbinical School in 2017. She serves on the clergy team of Kol Tzedek Synagogue in Philadelphia as Rabbi and Music Director, and teaches on the faculty of SVARA: A Traditionally Radical Yeshiva. She is the author of two books of poetry, and is starting to fantasize about writing a novel.

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