Between the Lines—Va-yehi

Weekly Midrash Learning with Rabbi Andy Shugerman

 

Genesis Rabbah 96:2

ויקרבו ימי ישראל למות, כתיב (תהלים לט) כי גר אנכי עמך תושב וגו', (ד"ה =דברי הימים= א כט) כי גרים אנחנו לפניך וגו' כצל ימינו על הארץ ואין מקוה, והלואי כצלו של כותל או כצלו של אילן אלא כצלו של עוף בשעה שהוא עף דכתיב (תהלים קמד) כצל עובר, ואין מקוה, ואין מי שיקוה שלא ימות הכל יודעים ואומרין בפיהם שהן מתים, אברהם אמר (בראשית טו) ואנכי הולך ערירי, יצחק אמר (שם /בראשית/ כז) ואברכך לפני ה' לפני מותי, אף יעקב אמר ושכבתי עם אבותי אימתי בשעה שנטה למות

 

"And when the time approached for Israel to die . . . " (Gen. 47:29). It is written, "[ . . . like all my forbears] I am an alien, resident with You. [Look away from me, that I may recover, before I pass away and am gone.]" (Psalm 39:13–14) And: "For we are strangers with You, [mere transients like our fathers]; our days on earth are like a shadow, and there is no hoping otherwise." (1 Chron. 29:15).Would that [our days] were as the shadow of a wall or of a tree! Rather they are like the shadow of a bird in flight, as it says, "[Man is like a breath; his days are] like a passing shadow." (Ps. 144:4)

" . . . And there is no hoping otherwise." (1 Chron. 29:15). None can hope not to die; all know it and declare by their own mouths that they are mortal. Abraham said: "['O Lord God, what can You give me,] seeing that I shall die childless . . . " (Gen. 15:2). Isaac said: "' . . . so that I may bless you in God's presence before I die.'" (Gen. 27:7) So too, Jacob said: "When I lie down with my fathers . . . " (Gen. 47:30). When was this? At the time when he expected to die.

For many—if not most—of us, death arouses great anxiety. Much of our emotionality regarding the end of life comes from the way that death changes how we perceive ourselves. This midrash about Jacob's deathbed scene presents ancient rabbinic wisdom about mortality based on insights from key passages in the Hebrew Bible. By presenting biblical metaphors alongside our patriarchs' experiences of dying, the text above teaches us to accept our limited lifetimes by acknowledging an uncomfortable reality.

In the first half of the midrash, we find two poetic verses that express how death and dying literally alienate one from a normal sense of reality. By comparing mortals to "strangers," whose fleeting lives "are like a shadow," these passages evoke the feelings of emotional distance and meaninglessness that often accompany the loss of a loved one or one's own impending demise. Nonetheless, this midrash finds hope in the truth that we are all "mere transients like our fathers."

Perhaps we can find comfort in reading how even Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob experienced the same grieving process of denial, anger, bargaining, and depression that we undergo before achieving acceptance. We can balance our powerlessness before death by emulating our patriarchs, whose trust in God and spiritual journeys can guide us in this world and the next.