Vayechi: Last Wishes

Image: Adult family members having a discussion. (Shutterstock: Zinkevytch)

This parshah, the crown and close of Genesis, offers us two end of life accounts: the end of the stories of Jacob and Joseph. In their deaths, they leave a legacy not only for their immediate descendants, but for all of the Jewish People.

Both Jacob and Joseph are models in that they are clear about their wishes while they are still able to convey those wishes. Jacob calls Joseph to him, as the son with executive power, and specifies exactly what he wants: “Bury me with my ancestors, not in Egypt.” Joseph takes an oath to carry out that wish.

Later, when he knows that he is dying, Jacob calls all his sons together. After blessing them, he informs them of his wish to be buried in the cave of Machpelah, this time with great specificity: “with my ancestors… in the cave in the field of Machpelah, facing Mamre, in the land of Canaan.” He then lists his ancestors and kin who are buried there, giving voice to the mitzvah of burial in a family plot. (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah, 363)

In his great specificity, and in choosing to speak with the brothers as a group, he is a role model for end of life instructions. While Joseph already had given his promise, Jacob gave his very disharmonious sons the gift of certainty about his wishes. After his death, Joseph directed that Jacob’s body be embalmed in the Egyptian fashion for transport to Canaan. He and his brothers traveled together to the Cave of Machpelah.

Later, when he was dying, Joseph followed his father’s example, gathering his family and blessing them with a reminder of the covenants God made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He then made his own request: “Bring my bones up [to Canaan] from this place.” Hundreds of years later, Moses made good on the promise of his ancestors: he carried the bones of Joseph out of Egypt and back to Hebron.

In our own days of advanced medical technology, there are many more things about which we should be specific with family. It is important to have the proper documents prepared: advanced health care directives, valid wills, and instructions for executors, but it is also important to talk about these matters with our loved ones in such a way as to minimize conflict and confusion at a difficult time.

Our ancestors Jacob and Joseph teach us the value of these conversations, a value that has only grown over time.