Jacob on his deathbed
Jacob on his deathbed

When a loved one is dying, caregivers should tread gently

Vayechi
Genesis 47:28–50:26
I Kings 2:1-12

The final parashah of Genesis opens with a dramatic scene featuring Jacob. He is 147 years old and the time has approached for him to die. He summons his son Joseph and asks him for a favor: that his sons not bury their father in Egypt. Rather they should take his body to the burial place of his ancestors.

“Sure,” Joseph says, but that is not good enough for his father.  Jacob says, “Swear to me.” Joseph dutifully swears and then Jacob responds by bowing his head. It is as if Jacob says to himself, “Great. That is taken care of, and I can move on in my journey toward leaving this world.”

Then the text takes a curious turn. A literal translation of the next verse could read, “And he said to Joseph, ‘See, your father is ill.’” But who is the “he” who said this?

Could it be Jacob? Could he be speaking of himself in the third person? As parents, often we do speak of ourselves in the third person in front of our children: “Your mommy is tired now.” “Your daddy wants you to speak nicely to each other.” There are many reasons for this. Could it be that Jacob was distancing himself from his own death? And that by speaking this way, he avoids considering his own demise?

The problem is that Joseph is not even present at that time. Immediately, in the following verse, Joseph arrives back on the scene, with his sons in tow.

That is why even the most literal translations do not translate this verse literally. Instead we read, “Joseph was told, ‘Your father is ill’” (Etz Hayim Torah commentary) or “They said to Joseph, ‘Here, your father has taken sick.’” (“The Five Books of Moses,” translated by Everett Fox).

So who does tell Joseph that his father is ill? And where is Joseph when he is told?

The midrash gives us a possible clue by telling us that Jacob’s grandson Ephraim was commonly found in Jacob’s home learning Torah. So perhaps Ephraim, seeing his grandfather’s illness, simply left his his side and went to tell his father, Joseph, that Jacob was ill.

Rashi offers another insight by telling us that a messenger went from Jacob’s house in Goshen to Joseph in Egypt, in order to tell him his father was sick. Siftei Chachamim, a commentary on Rashi’s commentary, adds another layer, noting that the text says, “he said,” and not, “he told.”

The servants in Jacob’s house (like Ephraim) knew that he was sick; this was not news to them. Therefore, the verse states “and they said.” Stating what was apparent to them, the servants did not feel they were telling Joseph any new information. However, to Joseph, who had not been there with his father, this really may have been news.

The liminal time when someone we love is ill and close to dying (or so we may think) is unbelievably fraught with emotion. So often, caregivers present with a dying person have a very different perspective from those who are far away, receiving reports via phone, text or email.

The way this verse is interpreted by Rashi and in Sifsei Chachamim underscores this real human truth: When a caregiver or relative calls and “tells” us something that feels new about the person we love, it can feel shocking and unbelievable. But often the caregivers and relatives there are really just saying it, because they are living day in and day out with the reality of illness and the proximity of death.

Parashat Vayechi reminds us to tread gently with each other during this time of transition, when a human being prepares to leave this world and transcend to the next. It is not easy to be patient with each other when we are all trying our best under difficult circumstances. But that is one of the many insights this parashah offers us.

leider-rabbi-susan-WEB
Rabbi Susan Leider

Rabbi Susan Leider is the senior rabbi at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon. She can be reached at sleider@kolshofar.org.