I have spent many hours with families as their loved ones transition from the world of the living to the next world. In a vast majority of these moments, the family will reflect on the life of the person they love who is now gone. They’ll talk about their favorite memories of their loved one, the way they lived their life, the funny anecdotes. In all of these conversations it seems that when the individual who is dying or has died had a decent relationship with their family, the living family members try to make meaning out of the death by fixing purpose to the life that was lived. “He did so much, I’m glad his suffering is over now.” “She was fierce and adventurous all the way until her last days.” “They wouldn’t want to live a life in a poor state of health; I’m grateful they died with dignity.”
There are also times when a family is simply not ready to let go. Sometimes, even when a loved one is physically unable to care for themselves or communicate their needs, the family will pursue every avenue to prolong the physical presence of their loved one on the earth. I find these moments to be the most challenging. When we’re born we have no ability to adequately communicate our needs or care for ourselves; it takes relying on others to learn how to exist in the world. Self-reliance is one of our most valued freedoms. There is dignity in being able to care for ourselves and contribute in some way to the world around us simply through our own personal agency. This leads me to question, what does it mean to live?
This week we read Parshat Vayechi, the last in the book of Genesis. The text begins with Jacob’s request that he not be buried in Egypt, and continues with Jacob blessing each of his sons in his final hours. It ends with Joseph making a similar request of his kin to bury him back in Israel when they finally leave Egypt.
The parshah opens with the simple words “and he lived,” referring to Jacob and his life. Earlier in the Torah, Jacob made the decision to wallow in grief after he assumed his beloved son Joseph had died. Jacob, in essence, was simply waiting to die. When we read this word “lived” here, the Torah seems to suggest that things turned around for Jacob, sharing that after he was reunited with Joseph, he had a renewed will to live and as such, didn’t let any moment simply slip away. One commentator theorizes that not only did Jacob live, but he was honored and treated with dignity. The dream of a life well lived.
The inescapable truth of life is that one day we will die. The time in between is all that we’re given, and it’s up to each of us to decide what it means to live a full life. From a practical standpoint, hopefully we will all follow the example of Jacob and Joseph and make our wishes known to those who will carry on after us. But when it comes to “living,” the intent should be on its fullness, however you interpret that. This time of year, when it’s easy to find It’s a Wonderful Life on television (including a 24-hour marathon of the film), we can get caught up in trying to live up to some unknown standard of wonderful. However, what we’re all really seeking when our time has come is that people will say, “It was a full life.”