Thursday, December 20, 2018

Dying Responsibly

Parshat Vayechi opens by telling us that “as Yaakov’s death approached” (47:29) he requested that Yosef swear to bury him in Me’arat Hamachpela in Chevron. Later in the Parsha (49:29) after he blesses each of his sons, Yaakov once again commands his children to bury him in Chevron, this time providing a bit more detail. Why does Yaakov make the request twice?

Death is a part of life. Just as we should live responsibly, so too must we die responsibly. Yaakov was demonstrating a key component to dying responsibly: planning in advance.

It should not come as a surprise that Yaakov makes his burial request on his deathbed. In the final moments of life, a person is likely to express his/her deepest desires and most important thoughts. For Yaakov these were thoughts symbolized by Chevron, ie Mesorah: being a link in the chain of Jewish tradition and the critical importance of the Land of Israel. Of course Yaakov wanted to “go home” and “be with his parents and grandparents”, themes that are commonly heard from people at the end of their lives. But Yaakov emphasized his burial location because of the lessons it contained for his children and future descendants. The Talmud (Gittin 36) writes “it is a mitzvah to fulfill the last wishes of a gravely ill person”, thereby codifying the seriousness that we are required to take deathbed requests.

What is more surprising is that Yaakov had the soundness of mind to make this request earlier- towards the end of his life, perhaps, but not on his deathbed. Not everyone dies after a protracted illness. Not everyone is lucid enough during their final days to convey their last requests in a meaningful fashion. Yaakov knew this and therefore engages in “pre-need planning”.
It is human nature to ignore our mortality. But ignoring this fact does not make it any less true, nor inevitable. Parents want to take care of their children- no matter how old our children are. Part of taking care of our children is to make plans for our ultimate passing, and to share those plans with our loved ones. I am proud that are shul once again is a partner in TEAM Shabbat: a weekend of awareness and education surrounding end-of-life issues. These issues run the gamut: from buying life insurance and writing your will (or making sure that your will is updated), to making decisions concerning graves and funeral arrangements. On Sukkot I presented a lecture on Jewish ethical wills. In addition to preparing a document that divides one’s financial estate, Jewish tradition encourages us to leave a document (or audio/video recording) that imparts lessons and values by which you want your family and friends to remember you.

We would think that planning for the end of our life would make us sad and depressed. Yet according to a 2007 study published in Psychological Science, the opposite is true. When asked to contemplate the occasion of their own demise, people become happier than usual, instead of sadder. Researchers say it's a kind of psychological immune response — faced with thoughts of our own death, our brains automatically cope with the conscious feelings of distress by non-consciously seeking out and triggering happy feelings, a mechanism that scientists theorize helps protect us from permanent depression or paralyzing despair.

When we pre-plan our end-of-life needs we are taking back a degree of control in a situation that is the ultimate symbol of man’s helplessness. We are also providing a final expression of care and love for our family. One of the most challenging and stressful situations that I have witnessed is the trauma of arranging for the funeral of a loved one who had no plans in place. Planning for these eventualities in advance is a way that we can take care of our family.  Perhaps this is what our tradition is trying to convey by teaching that planning for our final arrangements in advance is a segula for arichat yamim, long life. If we utilize this Shabbat as a springboard to begin to think about these ideas, and to open up conversations with our families, then the outcome will be a more fulfilling, satisfying life with less stress.

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