Learning how to say goodbye

Elizabeth Hersh is Senior Rabbi at Temple Emanuel.


Parashat Vayechi brings tears to my eyes and joy to my heart. Every emotion is wrapped into the blessings, disappointments and challenges of saying goodbye to a loved one, and the consequential changing family dynamics that follow the burial of a family leader. 

All Torah is personal. That is why, for me, Vayechi is the portion of my late father of blessed memory. I observed his shloshim eight years ago during the week of this portion. Because his funeral and burial were in Buffalo, N.Y, I asked friends to gather at the 30-day period to say kaddish with me at home in St. Louis.

Not only does Vayechi mark the end of Jacob’s life, it is the conclusion of the period of the patriarchs and matriarchs. For me, Vayechi was the end of an era. And like Jacob, my father had conveyed his wishes before he drew his final breath. Like our ancestors, I learned how to grieve for a parent.

The Torah utilizes the same words when describing the deaths of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The reader is told each “expired and was gathered to his people.” The corresponding reading in I Kings 2:10 shares that “David slept with his fathers.” It is, yet, another way of telling how we move from one generation to the next. Jewish life is about the continuity of souls. It is a simple and gentle way of knowing that we, too, will walk through the valley of death. We are part of an unending chain reaching back, uninterrupted, through the chapters of Torah. 

In my years as a rabbi, I have had the privilege of walking with our loved ones as they prepare, both emotionally and physically, for the final stage of life, as we comprehend it. 

Vayechi translates as “and he lived.” It implores us to ask the question, “How ARE we living?” Are we living a life replete with meaning and understanding of the gift we call life? Do we know how to laugh and cry at ourselves and the world? Do we know how to grant and receive forgiveness? Do we accept acts of loving-kindness or shun those in need? Do we know how to ask for assistance?

Sitting with friends and strangers alike, I ask people to reflect upon their lives and to tell me what they are proud of and what haunts them. We speak about fears or acceptance of the unknown, of being remembered or forgotten by a world that moves too quickly and often without substance. We discuss wishes for burial, and those to whom they need to say a final farewell before that moment. Many express a wish to be alone when that time comes, but I humbly and enthusiastically insist that the Almighty One will lovingly draw that final breath as a kiss goodbye. For now. 

I share with families the importance of not rushing through shiva or grieving. We talk about not thanking people for coming to ease the burden of pain and taking care of the mourners. We discuss the relevance of going for a walk around the block upon the conclusion of shiva as a symbolic re-entry into the world. Everyone grieves differently. We express our sorrow in multifaceted ways often not even understanding it ourselves. And we know that the relationship continues within long after the physical relationship has vanished.  

We must learn to live in a world where our beloved is no longer besides us. We must learn to laugh, love and cry anew.

This portion teaches us how to say goodbye and how to move forward with family and peace. This is a portion of life. 

May my father’s memory always be for a blessing.