Rabbi: ‘We do not desert the departed’

BY RABBI S éVERINE HAZIZA-SOKOL

It is said, “the worst way to die is emotionally alone.” While most people do not expect immortality, it can be hard to make the adjustment when death looms.

We might feel overcome by a sense of abandonment. There can also be a strong measure of guilt to reckon with. Emotional distance leads to estrangement.

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When someone fades from our life they can become, if we are not careful, unrecognizable. We make choices as to what we remember.

Our parashah this week, Va-y’chi, means “he lived,” but the real focus here is Jacob’s preparations for death.

In his final days Jacob looked backward in time, defending his decision to bury his wife Rachel on the road to Bethlehem, in lieu of the family’s burial plot at Machpelah.

According to Genesis Rabbah (82:10) Jacob favored this resting place for Rachel because he knew their descendents would pass her tomb as they went into exile. Rachel would then be able to weep and plead for their return, ending their retreat into assimilation.

The Torah does not disguise the messy facts of life.

After years apart Jacob and Joseph had a lot of ground to cover. Some commentators have speculated that Joseph resented the treatment of his mother Rachel at the hands of his father and perhaps this explains why he remained adrift of Jacob.

But how could he shrug off his father’s health?

Joseph was a go-get-him political player with a real foothold in the Egyptian court. He possessed the means to contact his family to let them know he was still alive.

Why would he put the brakes on family bonding? Midrash Tanhuma proposes that Joseph was negligent. God admonishes Joseph in the Midrash: “Your father is grieving for you in sackcloth and ashes and you are eating and drinking and curling your hair?”

The basis for this assertion hangs on Joseph’s announcement around the time of Manasseh’s birth, “for God has made me forget all my hardship and my parental home.” (Gen. 41:51)

This generational divide is not uncommon in our present age.

Seeking a fresh start in life, the Jewish immigrants who worked tirelessly to beat poverty had another job: to make themselves and their families American (in my case, French). And despite their good intentions, this often left parents cut off from the rarefied world of their children.

And the next generation struggled with their parents’ stubborn piety towards places that have been annihilated or are now virtually non-existent. Their parents tried to escape this destruction. Their children used their energy to transcend it.

They believed their children would answer their prayers and their children did answer back but in unexpected or even alienating ways.

When was the last time we saw our parents as themselves rather than measured against some standard of unattainable human perfection? We do not desert the departed. Our love for them does not decline with their health.

Our tradition teaches we are to care even when our loved ones are not physically here anymore.

Rabbi S éverine Haziza-Sokol serves Congregation Kol Am and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.