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January 6, 2017

Parashat Vayigash: Talking About “What Matters”

Angela W. Buchdahl

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In Vayigash, we have come to the climactic reveal of the story of Joseph and his brothers. His brothers come back down to Egypt for food and do not know him except as a powerful ruler. Joseph frames his youngest brother Benjamin and demands that he stay in Egypt as punishment.  Judah steps forward and begs Joseph to take him in Benjamin’s place, claiming that this is a matter of life and death for their father.  “His white head will go down to Sheol in grief.”

The Torah is spare in details, so we don’t know the conversation that occurs between the brothers before this moment, but we could imagine it:

”This will kill our father.”
“Maybe it won’t – he survived when we told him that fake story about Joseph.”
“No, this time it will really kill him!”
“That was your dumb idea in the first place – you’re a horrible person.”
“Yeah, then why don’t you go in Benjamin’s place?”

Ten brothers, who didn’t always agree, are suddenly forced to make a decision that could precipitate the end of their father’s life. They wrestle with their own personal concerns, their baggage from the past, their guilt, and worry over their father.

Now I know that this conversation didn’t actually happen – it’s not in the text – but I can tell you – that these kinds of conversations are still happening today in our families.

A congregant called me in distress many years ago. His mother, who recently celebrated her 65th birthday in perfect health, just had a fall and there was internal bleeding in her brain. Suddenly, she went from active and vibrant to vegetative – never being able to walk, speak or eat on her own again. The doctors recommended that they no longer keep her alive through tubes and machines. But the loving son was haunted by the fact that when he asked his mother to blink if she could understand him – she blinked. “She can hear me” he said, “she’s still alive in there.”

I asked him if he thought his mother wanted to live like this, and he said, “I know she doesn’t. But how can I make the choice to kill her?  I think she would keep me alive if the situation was reversed.” He was tortured, and it didn’t help that his sister believed they should keep their mother “alive.”

An agonizing week later, the family accepted that her condition would never improve and that while the machines kept her body alive, this was not living. After much discussion – they took her off life support. But the son could not get over his feelings of guilt.

Imagine how different the situation would have been if his mother had made her wishes explicit. Then, instead of feeling like HE was making the decision to end her life, he would, instead, just be honoring HER decision – that she had communicated to him while she was of sound mind.

Confronting the possibility of our own death can be – well – unpleasant. And very hard. Most of us choose not to think about it at all. But having these conversations with our loved ones are critically important. These conversations are not just about conditions for “Do Not Resuscitate” and how we want to die, but what really constitutes living for us. Dr. Atul Gawande, who wrote the watershed book, Being Mortal wrote about the conversation he had with his father before going in for a major surgery, realizing he didn’t know his father’s wishes. The answer surprised him. His father said, “Well, if I’m able to eat chocolate ice cream and watch football on TV, then I’m willing to endure quite a lot to stay alive.”

I had this conversation with my parents 18 months ago. I’ll admit I was dreading it. I flew to Tacoma, we sat outside on their terrace and Skyped in my sister. It was one of the most meaningful conversations I have had with my parents as an adult. It wasn’t just about dying, and burial requests, it ended up being about what quality of days meant to them. What they wanted their legacy to be. What Mattered.

Regardless of your age…have the conversation. They are not always easy, but they are sacred. And we believe it is the role of a synagogue to help you have them. Central’s What Matters Initiative, led by Rabbi Marion Lev-Cohen and chaired by past president Howard Sharfstein, has been helping people have these sacred conversations about end of life, with their loved ones. The What Matters team of trained facilitators have already had 70 confidential conversations with congregants in the last year. But our goal is to create a culture where every adult has made their wishes clear to loved ones.

In our Torah portion next week, Jacob is about to die. He gathers his family around his bedside, and has a “What Matters” conversation with them!  He blesses each of them and lets them know his desired legacy. Then he gives very explicit instructions on his end. He asks to be embalmed then buried in a particular cave in the field of Machpelah with his ancestors in Canaan. There is such clarity that his 12 sons, not always aligned, were able to come together in unity in his death.  The text says that Joseph closed his father’s eyes. A symbol of our tradition’s charge that children help usher our parents to life Eternal in peace.

We as children, have this responsibility to our parents. But it is also the responsibility of parents to make our wishes known to our children. Or our spouses, significant others and loved ones. Please don’t wait until you are on your deathbed to do so. A congregant recently had a What Matters conversation with her family and then just a month later learned she had Parkinson’s. She felt such gratitude that she had already shared her wishes before the added specter of the diagnosis. A What Matters conversation will undoubtedly save your loved ones from the tension, stress, and guilt of having to wonder about the difficult decisions in the moment. You give them the gift of being able to honor your wishes. And the conversation allows for an intimacy and sharing that can have unexpected results.

Join Rabbi Emeritus Peter Rubinstein as he shares his wisdom and provides meaningful Jewish context for this “What Matters” conversation.

Caring Conversations: Facing Our Mortality

Tuesday, Jan. 31, 6:00pm • Pavilion