Sneezes, Coffins, and Bracing for (Ongoing) Change

Last week, I wrote about Parashat Vayiggash and its affirmation of life. This week's parasha -- the final one in the Book of Genesis -- is titled Vayechi (meaning: "and he lived"), and yet its focus is more firmly on endings, goodbyes, deaths, and transitions. Commenting on Vayechi's final verse (50:26), which concludes with Joseph's body "in a coffin in Egypt," Robert Alter writes: "The book that began with an image of God's breath moving across the vast expanses of the primordial deep to bring the world and all life into being ends with this image of a body in a box, a mummy in a coffin."

Last week, I wrote about Parashat Vayiggash and its affirmation of life. This week's parasha -- the final one in the Book of Genesis -- is titled Vayechi (meaning: "and he lived"), and yet its focus is more firmly on endings, goodbyes, deaths, and transitions. Commenting on Vayechi's final verse (50:26), which concludes with Joseph's body "in a coffin in Egypt," Robert Alter writes: "The book that began with an image of God's breath moving across the vast expanses of the primordial deep to bring the world and all life into being ends with this image of a body in a box, a mummy in a coffin."

Even before we arrive at Joseph's death, though, the parasha feels like a giant ending to an epic story. The patriarch Jacob spends a full two-and-a-half chapters (from the beginning of the parasha through the end of chapter 49) in an end-of-life phase. Many midrashim take note of Jacob's extended goodbye, and a whole cluster of them attribute the concept of illness to Jacob. For example, the Talmud in Bava Metziah 87a reads:

Until Jacob, there was no illness leading up to death; rather, one would die suddenly. Jacob came and prayed for mercy, and illness was brought to the world, allowing one to prepare for his death, as it is stated: “And one said to Joseph: Behold, your father is sick” (Genesis 48:1), which is the first time that sickness preceding death is mentioned in the Bible.

Another midrash, Pirke d'Rabbi Eliezer 52 gets even more specific, explaining that up until Jacob's time, even a single sneeze was deadly; however, "Jacob came and prayed for mercy concerning this, and he said before the Holy One: Sovereign of all the worlds! Do not take my soul from me until I have charged my sons and my household." In other words, Jacob pleaded for an extended illness rather than a sudden death in order to give himself the time he needed to prepare and to wrap up his affairs suitably.

There's a beautiful kind of consciousness and recognition at play in Jacob's preparation for his death. Jacob is, as Aviva Zornberg notes (in The Beginning of Desire), "the only patriarch who speaks his will, in full awareness of his own end."

Today, in the midst of an ongoing pandemic, I'm not sure that any of us would glorify the idea of illness. But, this midrashic theme -- of Jacob striving for the extra time he knew he needed to brace and prepare for change and put his affairs in order -- does ring true to me as a core human desire.

It's been nearly two years now since we first heard the words "coronavirus" and "Covid-19." In early 2020, the changes to our day-to-day existence slammed into us suddenly... like one who (in the words of Pirke d'Rabbi Eliezer) "sneezed, and his soul went out through his nostrils." We are still reeling from the losses of this pandemic chapter, which hit us much as any sudden loss might. As psychologist Betsy Stone wrote this week in an article entitled "Can you say no once in a while?": "Research has long taught us that grief is a full body experience. It is powerlessness, fear, struggle. People who are grieving sleep more, get sick more often, and don't think clearly. COVID has been 20 months of grief."

However, like Jacob, as the pandemic has dragged on, it's transformed from a situation of sudden loss to a longer-term condition. Over the last year, multiple vaccinations have been approved and nearly all of us (age 5+, at least) have received multiple doses(!); now new oral therapeutics are in the works as well. We have also adapted to be able to live and function more safely, using tools like masks and testing, outdoor living rooms and air filters... all of which has bought us some extra time. Jacob filled his extended time with richness and meaning, gathering family members around him, sharing instructions for his own burial and articulating blessings for his grandchildren and children. What about us -- what have we learned from this extended collective "illness"? I hope that the answer is something, that we are now better equipped to thoughtfully and consciously navigate the challenges we face. Certainly, the pandemic has driven home the degree to which we are all dependent on one another. In the words of Dr. Ed Septimus, an infectious disease specialist in Houston, "We all must do our share. A few reflections as we will soon begin year 3 of the pandemic: (1) be credible, (2) express empathy, (3) show respect, (4) be transparent and communicate urgency, (5) learn from mistakes, (6) encourage community engagement, (7) follow the science, (8) multi-stakeholder coordination, and (9) humility!"

Without a date, we still find ourselves inside a scary time, and a wearying one; as we brace for an Omicron wave right now, we know there is more loss to come. And yet, this week's parasha -- and particularly the midrashim around Jacob's request for "an extension" -- can lend a helpful perspective. Rather than being bowled over by sudden change, we can see more clearly that we have entered a new phase, one in which we are living with the pandemic in a longer-term way. Like Jacob, this gift of more time gives us greater awareness and the agency to make choices.

As we conclude this first book of the Torah, we say "chazak, chazak, v'nitchazek" - "strength, strength, and may we be strengthened."  I pray that -- as we move from Genesis to Exodus, and from one calendar year to the next --  we will find the strength and tools we need to manage through this chapter of ongoing loss and transition, and to ready ourselves for the new beginnings that will come after.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum