parsha of the week

Dying — and living — with dignity


By the time Yaakov dies at age 147, in parashat Vayechi,his sons range in age from 62 (Reuven) to 56 (Yosef, Zevulun, and possibly Asher), to around 48 (Binyamin).

As we know how old Yosef is at his death — 110 — and since Yosef is credited as being the first of the brothers to die, this means that the brothers lived together in Egypt without their father for another 54 years.

While we can argue whether Yaakov ever knew about the sale of Yosef and whether the brothers told the truth to Yosef in 50:16, we can also say with near certainty that from the day they were reunited, Yosef was only gracious, showed only love, expressed only the desire that his brothers not feel guilt for having him sold, and continued to provide for them for the rest of his days, if not the rest of their days as well.

And then over the next 54 years of his life, beyond personal achievements of which we know very little, Yosef clearly puts his house in order.

1. He makes a clear and final peace with his brothers (50:21)

2. They live together and made a life in Egypt (50:22)

3. Yosef is blessed to truly “live” (like his father, he too is described as vayechi, living a meaningful life, in Egypt) (50:22)

4. He lives to be a great grandfather — this too is acknowledged as an accomplishment. And not only that, but he is close to his descendants (50:23)

5. When he is about to die, he leaves a last will and testament that becomes Bnei Yisrael’s living legacy and a reminder that they willleave Egypt one day (50:25)

6. He makes a dying wish that he be reinterred in the Promised Land, that when they leave Egypt they are to take his bones with them for reburial in Eretz Canaan (50:24)

7. And finally, after dying and being embalmed, his body is placed in a box in Egypt.

Of that box, Seforno says: “They put him in the same box where the embalming took place — that’s where his bones were. They did not bury him in the ground. This way his coffin[’s whereabouts] was known for generations, as it says, ‘And Moshe took Yosef’s bones…’”

In other words, the box served as a reminder for the next 139 years, until the moment of the Exodus, that a promise had been made that one day they would be leaving. And the promise was made by that man, in that box, the box we will take with us when we leave.

What an incredible gift of hope and optimism Yosef gave them in preparing for his death!

When people sense that their life is nearing an end, there is a natural concern about dying with dignity. I’m not going to go into the secular definition — of people who choose to end their lives to end the pain and the suffering, for people to only know them as they know themselves, before illness takes its toll. It’s not the halachic way.

In Judaism, one can argue that achieving Death with Dignity comes from living Life with Dignity. It means setting goals. It means having no regrets when life is over. The Yosef way.

It means I live a life in which I make peace with family members. Sometimes it’s a strain. But imagine the regret of an estranged relationship, when children don’t care about their parents who have died, when siblings — either those sitting shiva together, or those who should be sitting in mourning for one another — don’t see the point of feeling loss, because they didn’t care about the deceased at all?

Here are a few lessons from Yosef.

1. He makes peace with his brothers. They are allat his deathbed. And they allmake the promise that his bones will be taken out of Egypt. For us, this means that even if we don’t live nearby, we can still be in touch, not lose that connection. Even if it takes a lot of work and effort.

2. A dignified life is one defined by meaningful choices. Whether it’s an elevated life of Torah and mitzvos, a thoughtful life of constantly growing, having and sharing new experiences, a life of learning, or a life of a consistent schedule that gives a person a sense of purpose — this is what it means to live a life of dignity.

3. Yosef lived to see generations. Not everyone does. Some die young, some don’t have children. These are realities. But those realities don’t mean people can’t have good relationships in the time they are allotted.

4. Yosef leaves a will and testament to his family, in which he talks about G-d, what he believes G-d has in store for his family in the future, and that they should never forget that G-d is there.

5. And finally, Yosef knows he is in exile, but in the end he wants to be buried in the Holy Land. He taught his children to be mindful of a future redemption.

Many who lived with dignity died with the ultimate dignity, having made all the necessary plans and arrangements for their families, so they too left no regrets, except the only we always feel: “I wish we had more time to spend together.”