A Good Death

Parashat VaYishlach, Genesis 32:4–36:43

Now the days of Isaac were 180 years. And Isaac breathed his last, and he died and was gathered to his people, old and full of days. And his sons Esau and Jacob buried him. Genesis 35:28–29

When a patriarch or matriarch dies the whole family suffers trauma. The family system becomes imbalanced with the loss of its dominant member, and the surviving members sometimes act erratically. The death of a father or mother figure often stirs up fighting and misunderstanding between those who are left behind. They might seem to be arguing over funeral arrangements or the division of property, but the real issues are far deeper. Underlying the surface conflict is often terror at death itself.

As a rabbi and counselor, I’ve learned to tread softly through the scene of bereavement and mourning. More than once I’ve seen the primary caregiver, the one child who cared for an ailing parent night and day, who sacrificed personal priorities to keep the parent safe and comfortable, get blamed for the parent’s death. I’ve seen respectable, well-to-do offspring descend on the family home hours after the death of a parent to snatch up an old photo or a sentimental heirloom before the other family members could get to it. It’s a mistake to take these actions at face value and try to intervene with an appeal to fairness. Instead, they’re the distorted outworking of fear, guilt, and anxiety over a loss that just doesn’t make sense, a loss that hangs over life from now on like a black cloud.

But sometimes the death of a patriarch brings the opposite response, peace among the survivors.

So it is in Parashat VaYishlach, as Isaac’s two sons, his sibling-rival sons Esau and Jacob, join together to bury him. Of course, there was already a dramatic reconciliation scene between the two in our last parasha, when Esau “ran to meet Jacob and embraced him and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept” (33:4). Then Esau graciously accepted Jacob’s extravagant gift of “two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, thirty milking camels and their calves, forty cows and ten bulls, twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys” (32:14–15), and invited Jacob to journey with him on his way back to his home territory of Seir. But this scene ended with Jacob refusing Esau’s gracious offer, and the brothers going their separate ways (33:12–18).

Now the brothers rejoin at last to bury their father. The text, with the precision that we always need to watch for in the Torah, restores the original birth order—it’s “Esau and Jacob” not “Jacob and Esau” that bury their father. Esau’s disregard of the birthright and Jacob’s scheming to obtain it and the blessing that accompanied it are set aside at this final moment. In this scene it’s not Jacob the chosen and Esau the rejected, but Esau and Jacob, older brother and younger brother, joined together to bury their father.

Underlining this moment of resolution, the Torah immediately turns to list the generations of Esau, which takes up an entire chapter (36) of Genesis. Nahum Sarna notes that the list of generations serves “a theological purpose.”

Esau was the subject of a divine oracle and the recipient of a patriarchal blessing (25:23; 27:39–40), and the data now given show how these were fulfilled in history. The rise and development of the Edomite tribes, like the fortunes of Israel, are determined by the workings of God’s Providence and are part of His grand design of history.[1]

Esau is not Jacob, of course, and he will not bear the full legacy of Abraham and Isaac. But he is a son who receives blessing, including a homeland, and he is the ancestor of “kings who reigned in the land of Edom before any king reigned over the Israelites” (36:31). Somehow, the death of Isaac brings all this to the fore.

We can see a similar pattern at the death of Abraham.

These are the days of the years of Abraham’s life, 175 years. Abraham breathed his last and died in a good old age, an old man and full of years, and was gathered to his people.  Isaac and Ishmael his sons buried him in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron the son of Zohar the Hittite, east of Mamre. (25:7–9)

Here Isaac continues to be mentioned before his older brother, Ishmael, but the estranged brothers are together again for the moment. Immediately after noting God’s blessing on Isaac, the text goes on to list the generations of Ishmael, just as it lists the generations of Esau immediately after Isaac’s death. In this case, Ishmael fathers twelve sons, which become twelve tribes, paralleling the twelve tribes of Israel. And his death is described with the words “he breathed his last” [G’VIYAH], a term usually applied only to the righteous according to Rashi. It’s the same word that is used to describe the deaths of Abraham and Isaac, and we’ll see it again at the death of Jacob (49:33).

There’s another common thread between the deaths of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Jacob’s death also provides for a moment of reconciliation between his sons.

When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “It may be that Joseph will hate us and pay us back for all the evil that we did to him.”  So they sent a message to Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this command before he died: ‘Say to Joseph, “Please forgive the transgression of your brothers and their sin, because they did evil to you.”’ And now, please forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father.” Joseph wept when they spoke to him. His brothers also came and fell down before him and said, “Behold, we are your servants.” But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.” Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them. (50:15–21)

From this beautiful scene, and the beautiful burials of Abraham and Isaac, we can extract two lessons:

First, death and bereavement are part of life, and we can make of them good or ill. I noted the dysfunctional response to death of some families, but I’ve also seen grieving families draw together, forgive, and find deep reconciliation at their time of loss. I’ve attended funerals filled with tension, whispers, and discord, and I’ve attended funerals that genuinely honored the legacy of the departed and brought deep comfort to those left behind. It’s part of life on this earth to prepare for death, our own and also the death of loved ones. We can begin now to prepare for a good death.

The second lesson is really just a remez or hint in the burials of Abraham and Isaac. The death of the father brings reconciliation to his sons. So the death of the father’s perfect representative, Messiah Yeshua, brings reconciliation to all the sons that God has created. At his death the rivalry over who is favored and who isn’t, over who owns the birthright and who receives the biggest blessing, is terminated. The death of Messiah Yeshua is a good death, and from it flows life to those left behind.

In memory of Arthur Byers, a member of our chavurah, who passed away November 29 at the age of 90.

[1] The JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, Commentary by Nahum M. Sarna (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989) 246.

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