Shabbat-Table Talks: Vayehi
By: Rabbi Ralph Tawil <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Value: Accepting death and understanding that it is part of life. Inevitably, our children will encounter death. Whether it be the death of a pet or wild animal; or, more grievously, the death of a loved one. Death is often treated as a taboo subject in Western societies. It is hidden behind euphemisms, such as, “So and so has passed away,” or that “so and so is no longer with us.” The Torah, being a book about life, also exposes us and our youngest children to death; it does it naturally, as part of its heroes’ lives. These sections should not be skipped over. Rather, a frank discussion about death by his parents can instill in children a healthy attitude about death. (Note: Some might not see this as an appropriate discussion for Shabbat. Yet, if handled sensitively one can turn it into a very meaningful, but not necessarily a sad discussion.)
Background: Our Perasha describes a blessed kind of death. Ya’aqob died after seeing his long-lost child and his grandchildren from Yosef. He was able to instruct Yosef and his other children about his will after death (to be buried in Canaan). Ya’aqob blessed his children and they were all with him when he died. The Torah describes his actual dying in a very poignant way.
Text: Beresheet 49:33-50:3
"When Ya'aqob finished commanding his sons, he gathered up his feet on to the bed and expired, and was gathered to his kinspeople. Yosef flung himself on his father’s face, he wept over him and kissed him. Then Yosef charged his servants, the physicians, to embalm his father, and the physicians embalmed Yisrael. A full forty days were required for him, for thus are fulfilled the days of embalming. And the Egyptians wept for him for seventy days."
Analysis: Of all Ya’aqob’s children, Yosef is the one that cries on his father and kisses him when he dies. This fulfills the promise that Hashem had given Ya’aqob when he went down to Egypt, that Yosef would “place his hands on Ya’aqob’s eyes” (46:4). Ya’aqob’s death was a peaceful, serene one.
Discussion: How do you think Yosef felt? (This is an easy question to get the discussion started.) Why do you think Yosef, out of all the brothers, was the one to fall on his father’s face and cry? (He had not seen him for many years. Or he was the leader of the family.) It is ok to cry when you are feeling sad. We feel sad when people die because we will miss them. After a while, we accept that they died and learn to remember them. We still might feel sad, but we are also grateful to have known them. Life is a gift that Hashem gives us; of course, we always like to have that gift. However, the gift is not forever. Even adults do not know everything about death.
What was good about the way Ya’aqob died? (He saw Yosef. He blessed his children. He told them what he wanted them to do.)
If your child has had an experience with the death of an animal or with a loved one you can discuss it. You can also reminisce with your child about a loved one that has died. What were their qualities? Tell a story or anecdote about the person—especially if you can remember a humorous one.
“Do’s” and “Don’ts” When Discussing Death with Children
· Don’t equate death with going to sleep. We do not want our children to be scared to go to sleep.
· Stress that getting sick does not necessarily lead to death. Statements such as, “she got sick and died” might make the child be unduly afraid of sickness.
· Don’t make the connection between the hospital and death. Most people go to the hospital to get well.
· Do not say something like, “God took Joey because he was so good.” This might make the child think that if they are good, God might decide to take them as well.
· Speak about death in a “matter of fact way.” Avoid euphemisms. They can be confusing to children.
· When explaining death to a young child, it is often helpful to describe it in terms of the absence of all familiar functions of life—for example, “when a person is dead they cannot move, or see or feel or breathe or think.” “You cannot be aware of anything.”
(From Annie Stories, by Doris Brett p. 146. Incidentally, this is an excellent book for dealing with children’s problems through stories.)
Additional text and discussion:
An unusual word is used to describe Ya'aqob's passing, "vayigva'" (expired). This word might be used here because he was ill before he died. The absence of the usual word for death, "vayamot," has led to the following (post-meal) rabbinic dialogue between R. Yishaq and R. Nahman:
Thus has R. Yohanan said: Ya'aqob our patriarch did not die. R. Nahman said to R. Yishaq: And did they falsely eulogize him, embalm him and bury him?! R. Yishaq responded: I am expounding a verse, as it is said: "But you have no fear, my servant Ya'aqob--declares the Lord-- be not dismayed, O Israel! I will deliver you from far away, and your seed from the land of their captivity. (Jer. 30:10) Ya'aqob is associated with his seed, just as his seed is alive likewise he is alive. (Ta'anit 5b)
Judging from the shocking content of this comment it is good that R. Yishaq waited until after the meal to say it. On the surface, the comment is patently absurd. How can anyone say that Ya'aqob did not die?
This is, in fact, the objection raised by R. Nahman. R. Yishaq deflects this peshat, but simplistic understanding of his comment by saying that he is expounding a biblical verse (Miqrah ani doresh) therefore one has to listen with a different standard.
The verse that R. Yishaq expounds associates Ya'aqob and his descendants. Ya’aqob’s values and teachings are preserved, and are in fact living, as long as his descendants, those who identify with him, are alive.
The derasha presents a new, more profound, understanding of life and death. Physical death is therefore defeated when one's descendants continue to identify with one's values. As long as the seed of Ya'aqob survives, Ya'aqob our father did not die.
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