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Vayigash 5777 - 2017 How to Live, How to Die

posted Jan 5, 2017, 8:35 AM by Ohel Avraham

Vayigash 5777 - 2017 How to Live, How to Die

This week in parshat Vayigash, the story of Joseph comes to its climax as he reveals his identity to his brothers in Pharaoh’s court. Three years ago when we read this triennial portion, we discussed how Judah, facing seemingly insurmountable odds, rose to earn his tribe’s identity as the Lion, Protector of Israel. This year, we will look at a different aspect of the story. In this part of the narrative, the deep connection between Joseph and his father is perhaps its clearest. Moved by Judah’s impassioned plea, Joseph reveals, “I am Joseph. Is my father still living?” Joseph’s brothers do not answer, as they are frightened, or literally, dumbfounded.

Likewise, Jacob wants nothing more than to see his favorite son – it is his dying wish. When the two meet, Joseph weeps in his father’s arms, and Jacob declares, “Now let me die, for I have seen your face, and you are still alive.” Jacob will of course die, though not for 17 years after this declaration.

What we are acutely aware of is Jacob’s preparation for death. Next week we will read of his instructions to be buried in the ancestral cave of Machpelah, in current day Hebron. And this week, Jacob states clearly that his wish before dying is to see his son, Joseph. After he is able to do so, Jacob is ready to die.

There is a burgeoning movement in this country that asks the question Jacob seems to have answered – How do we die? What is most important to us as our life draws to a close? The New York Times Magazine interviewed Dr. B.J. Miller, a palliative care physician in San Francisco. Dr. Miller survived a near-death incident in his early 20’s that left him a triple amputee and a relentless pursuer of how to enable those closest to death, to die with dignity.

Dr. Miller was previously the executive director of a Zen Buddhist hospice organization that is helping to change how people experience the end of their lives. The organization began during the AIDS crisis when a Zen Buddhist community in San Francisco started to take in young men condemned to die in isolation and pain.

The fundamental question of Dr. Miller, his hospice organization, and the field of palliative care is how we can enable those reaching death to live with love, comfort, community, and valued actions. Most fields of medicine ask how we can prolong life; palliative care asks what is most important to a person during the rest of their life. This subject has also been explored by Dr. Atul Gawande, a physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, in his book Being Mortal.

Both physicians brought me to a radical shift in thinking – from believing that dying was a time of suffering before the end of life, to understanding dying as a fundamental part of being alive. Zen Buddhist approaches, which parallel the Jewish sentiment of Ecclesiastes 9:11, form the foundation of this viewpoint – no one is exempted from pain; indeed, suffering is seen in Buddhism as an inevitable part of life, and not the failure of one to live “well” or “right.” In this same vein, dying is seen as a process during which someone is still very much alive.

Our imperative, of course, must be to embrace life, as the Torah commands in Deuteronomy 50:19, Baharta bahayim, “choose life”. But modern medicine has given us seemingly infinite capabilities to prolong life, with people appearing less and less alive with each intervention, treatment, or artificial device. Dying, however, does not require one to relinquish life. Rather, dying provides us with a final opportunity to live in the way we choose, value, and desire.

Jacob is an embodiment of this approach to dying. In many ways, Jacob is a lucky man. He does not appear to fear death, nor desire to prolong his life. Rather, he identifies one wish – one goal for his remaining days. Living to see this goal is certainly a privilege, and not one that everyone can enjoy. However, the idea that Jacob has only a single desire before he is ready to die is a notion which is not common in our age of modern medicine.

We have invented ways to cure illness, treat chronic conditions, and save those in dire medical crises. With media and popular culture focus on the heroic measures that can be taken to preserve life at all stages, it is a less familiar idea to view death as an acceptable, inevitable, and necessary stage of being alive. By shifting our perspective to that articulated by Jacob, Dr. Miller, and others, we can attempt to bring ourselves and our loved ones to a less fraught understanding of dying, and of living.

Shabbat Shalom,
Yvonne Asher, Samuel Asher
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