Two types of death
There is a discussion within our tradition, concerning why at the close of the Book of Genesis, at the end of his days, Jacob is never described as dying.
In fact, the name of this week's Torah portion (Parashah) is titled, Va'ye'chi, "and he lived."
We are told as Jacob leaves this earth that, "the span of Jacob's life was one hundred and forty seven years." It is also written that "when Jacob finished his instructions to his sons, he drew his feet into the bed and, breathing his last, he was gathered to his people."
And with that, after providing his sons with ethical instruction, Jacob, also known as "Israel," closes his eyes and joins the world of souls.
Yet the lack of the word "death" puzzles our rabbis. Abraham dies. So does Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah and soon Joseph. Why is the Torah so ginger in its description of Jacob's transition from life to death?
Megillat Taanit, a two thousand year old chronicle of the thirty five most significant days in Jewish tradition, teaches us that in reality, there are two types of death. The first is physical. And the second marks the end of our influence on the world.
For many, the two occur simultaneously. We raise families. We toil. We contribute to society. And when it's over, it's over.
Yet each of us possesses the capacity to initiate an "echo" which can resonate within our children, our grandchildren, our nieces, nephews, students, friends and community.
About twenty years ago, two Glen Cove sisters, Julia and Helen Wolpert, seemingly ordinary women who lived simple and frugal lives, left a sizeable sum to the congregation at their deaths, and that initiated the Wolpert Foundation. During the past two decades scores of CTI students have benefitted from more than $1.5 million in scholarships. And that tradition continues to this day.
That is the physical part. As we age, we want to make sure that others can benefit from the physical spoils we have gathered during our lifetime.
But there is more. For indeed, our lives consist of more than "stuff."
What are the intangibles we wish to leave behind: the values, the way of life, the charities, the traditions?
Each of us ponders about what will happen after we are gone. Will our families thrive? Will they be happy and healthy? Will Judaism survive? What will be with our own sacred community?
Will our memory and our influence continue after we've exhaled our final breath?
It is why our tradition encourages us to study Jacob. Our rabbis teach us that his influence never died. The Torah in its final pages talks about Morasha Kehillat Yaacov "the heritage of the congregation of Jacob." (Deuteronomy 33.4). It continues to this day.
Jacob, the momma's boy, turned trickster and scoundrel. Jacob the doting father, the grieving patriarch. Jacob, renamed "Israel," wrestler with God, our spiritual namesake.
On his death bed, Jacob gathers his generations, and gifts them with the future.
In his wisdom, he articulates what he wants. He desires peace, honesty, justice and continuity.
Don't we all?
Each of us is surrounded by the future. We've seen it in the faces of upcoming generations which have encircled us this season.
And while many have focused on providing material gifts to our children and grandchildren, it is worth considering that perhaps the greatest treasures that we have bestowed to future generations are the gift of memories and the blessing of continuity.
Earlier this month, about a dozen congregants gathered for an evening of introspection and insight as we developed, as Jacob does this week, our own "ethical wills."
What are our personal Ten Commandments? What are our principles of faith? What have been the joys in our life? What have been the setbacks, and what if anything did we learn? How do we want to be remembered? What would be our final message to the world?
In the end, we want to be well remembered. We want to inspire others for good. We understand that although we are dust in the wind, there a chance that our second death may be delayed, as others carry forward our wisdom and life experience.
For those who were not able to attend, we will go through this process again on Tuesday, January 8 at 7:30 pm. It's an enlightening, soulful, meaningful experience.
With the secular New Year approaching, many of us will make resolutions for the next year. While Rosh Hashanah is a time to delve into our souls and refine some of our behaviors, contemporary Judaism encourages an attachment to the secular new year, because much of what is pondered is connected to Pikuach Nefesh, preservation of human life.
We pledge to eat better, work out, take a class, walk more, lose a few pounds. Within the context of the Jewish journey, it's a good thing.
But also at the turning of the year, we think about the passage of time, and about legacy. Are we ready to put it on paper?
It's been twenty years since the passing of the last local member of the Wolpert family, Helen Wolpert. Eleven years have elapsed since 9/11. Time passes.
As the secular New Year approaches, let us embrace a sense of newness. Tradition also tells us that drinking wine on festive occasions lifts our spirits. It reminds us that life can't be totally about an obsession with serious things or the hereafter.
Judaism reminds us to laugh and celebrate good times, and to raise a glass whenever we can and declare L'Chaim.
But let us also remember to keep one foot planted in reality. As the New Year approaches, let us take a moment to ponder whether like Jacob, we have cleared an ethical path for those who will carry on. The idea is not to control, but rather to inspire.
The New Year - whether Jewish or secular - provides a time for goal setting. It is an opportunity to set new targets. It is why our tradition endorses the celebration of secular holidays provided they are "for the good."
Indeed, as children of Israel, we continue to wrestle with God, life and the future. But Judaism also encourages us to laugh and to rejoice.
God knows we have struggled enough in 2012.
May we be inscribed for goodness in 2013.
But as the great inspirational writer Alan Lakein wrote in 1973, "failing to plan is planning to fail."
For only by embracing life, leading by example and planning our legacy, may are our names always be for blessing.
Indeed, like Jacob and our own departed role models, in the end, that's all we really want.
Happy New Year to everyone. Shabbat shalom, v'kol tuv (with all goodness).
Rabbi Irwin Huberman