D’var Torah, Va-y’chi: She Died unto Me

by Elizabeth Dunsker

Four years after my grandfather died, my grandmother remarried. She changed her last name from Dunsker to Hyman, and two months later her second husband died of a heart attack. But she kept the last name Hyman for the rest of her life until she died fifteen years later. For my father, my brother, and me, there was no question that we would bury her next to my grandfather rather than her second husband. And we had a mere moment’s thought before we engraved her stone with only the last name of Dunsker. She’d had a life with my grandfather, and had bought a plot with him. While those two months with her second husband were wonderful for her, to us, her offspring, they were inconsequential. My grandfather was the person she would lie next to. How then could we add the second husband’s last name to her stone? While she felt that as his widow, she should keep the name Hyman, we had never gotten used to it and couldn’t imagine engraving it in stone.

As she aged, my grandmother became well acquainted with dementia. She was robbed of the opportunity to tell us what she wanted; where she wanted to be buried and what she wanted written on her stone. We made decisions that we hoped she would agree with, and since she couldn’t tell us “no,” we made the decisions that made the most sense to us, her mourners.

There is a wonderful tradition of ethical wills, written documents left behind for those that survive after us, explaining what we might want for our own burials, and what hopes we have for our mourners. The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives1 has a wonderful collection of these. One that I love comes from the book So That Your Values Live On: Ethical Wills and How to Prepare Them.2 It tells that Yehuda Leib Graubart (the Stashever Rav) wrote, “Please return the borrowed books in my possession: the volumes belonging to the Etz Hayyim school. . . . I caution you in strongest terms not to eulogize me (except if my sons are here). [Place] my grave only beside a poor, honest man who earned his living by the work of his hands. The gravestone should be of utmost simplicity, inscribe no titles, only my name, the name of my sainted father, of blessed memory, and the family name.” I love this will. I love the need to return borrowed books and I love the insistence on modesty in death. But especially, I love his clear description of the kind of person he expects as a neighbor for eternity.

As death approaches, if we are still able to communicate fully, we have an invaluable opportunity to share our deepest values with those we love. This week Jacob approaches death, and like the Stashever Rav, he gives clear directions about his burial. “Do not bury me in Egypt. When I [am laid to] rest with my ancestors, carry me out of Egypt and bury me in their burial-place” (Genesis 47:29–30). Jacob’s concern that he be buried in the family plot in the cave of Machpelah is understandable, but we also learn he is conflicted.

When Joseph visits his father as he is dying and he introduces his children to their grandfather, Jacob expresses his gratitude for living long enough to meet them. Then he says, “And I—as I was coming from Paddan, Rachel died in the land of Canaan, on the road, only a stretch of ground before reaching Ephrath. I buried her there on the way to Ephrath, that is, Bethlehem” (Genesis 48:7). Out of the blue, Jacob shares this. Like the Stashever Rav’s borrowed books, he has a last bit of business to take care of. Rashi writes, “And I did not carry her even to Bethlehem in order to bring her to a [settled] land, and I know that you have resentment toward me” (Rashi on Genesis 48:7).

Here Jacob has asked Joseph to carry his own body from Egypt all the way back to Machpelah, and when his beloved wife Rachel died, he didn’t even travel to the nearest city to bury her, he dug a grave by the side of the road and there she remains. We do not know Joseph’s feelings, only that Jacob needs to talk to him about this. Like the Stashever Rav, he may also be considering with whom he will spend eternity. He may be considering as he made his request to be buried in the cave that he will be there with Leah but not also with Rachel.

Like my grandmother, Jacob is buried with his first wife. All of his sons agree to this, and it is clear to them that it is his desire. Perhaps burying the sisters separately was meant as a kindness, their life together married to the same man was not always easy. Jacob made his choice to spend eternity next to Leah, and while Rachel had his heart, Leah also had a claim to him. The final bit of business he had was to explain the decision to Joseph, Rachel’s first son, and the only son who knew her.

Jacob’s words to Joseph might also be translated, “Rachel died unto me. . . ” (Genesis 48:7). By understanding his words this way, it seems to me that Jacob is saying, “when your mother died it affected me deeply, and I was the one who had to make all the decisions, and I made the best decision I could at the time.” I think how very lucky Joseph was to have heard that from his father before he died, and how very lucky Jacob was for the opportunity to explain himself and make peace with a difficult decision before dying. I imagine there are many of us who would benefit from having such conversations with loved ones as they prepare for death, and barring that, how wonderful to have an ethical will to read. How wonderful to know in the end you are fulfilling your loved one’s final wishes. Joseph was very lucky for this moment indeed.

1. See http://americanjewisharchives.org/
2. (eds. Jack Riemer and Nathaniel Stampfer [Woodstock, Vermont: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1991, p. 39).

Rabbi Elizabeth Dunsker joyfully serves as the rabbi for Congregation Kol Ami in Vancouver, Washington.

Originally posted in Ten Minutes of Torah and Reform Voices of Torah.

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