Rabbi Steinhardt's Sermons

Parsha Vayechi 5780 – January 10, 2020

Parsha Vayechi 5780 – January 10, 2020

Parshat Vayechi concludes the Book of Breishit. Vayechi means “and he lived.” It is about the conclusion of the life of Jacob/Israel. It contains the famous Birkat Yaakov, Jacob’s blessing of his sons.

And we see that it is not a blessing at all. In fact, the commentary at the bottom of the page in our chumash refers to the translation of Vayevareich otamnot as meaning “and he blessed them,” but rather that it means “he bade them farewell.” As we see, it doesn’t seem like a blessing at all.

The attention to dying and death in our tradition is remarkable. One might say that it is barely different than the attention paid to every aspect of life. But it is more. There is something unique in this and something so beautiful.

I’m in the midst of a book by a Harvard grad named Sara Hurwitz. She was a speechwriter for both President and Mrs. Obama. Sara lived as a Jew without connection to our tradition. The full title of her book is Here All Along: Finding Meaning, Spirituality, and a Deeper Connection to Life — in Judaism (After Finally Choosing to Look There).

One way we see the connection to life in our congregation is through the recitation of kaddish by mourners. Here it is exposed by the fact that we read – and will continue to read – the name of every single person from our families who have passed away. Sometimes the list is long, and many have no idea who most of the people are. Yet we read and will always read every single name. Because each of those people who died…lived.

That’s why the name of this parshah is called “and he lived” – like the parshah Chayei Sarah earlier in this book which deals with death, or the life of Sarah. It provides an insight into the way we confront death. And I use the word confrontpointedly because we do not shy away from death. We honor the dead. We do not hide by running. We participate in it as a sign of the value of life, as an expression of life.

You see, we feel that every life has infinite value and that is then reflected in the treatment of, not just the death of Sarah and Jacob, but every single member of the household of Israel. Kavod HaMeitis the guiding principle in the way every single death is treated.

I know many if not all of you know this.

And so, we do taharahand cleanse with care our dead. And we dress them in linen. And we make sure there is a shomeir, someone watching the body and reciting Tehilian, the poetry of our people. It continues as we are obligated to lay our loved ones in the earth and cover them with soil. It is considered a chesed shel emet…the truest form of kindness.

When Jacob was dying he had Joseph promise to bury him with his ancestors in the land of Israel. When Joseph died his bones were saved and he was brought back to the Land of Israel with the exiles. These are decisions that help us understand the words “and he was gathered unto his kin.”

I raise this subject today not to be mournful but because I read an article almost a year ago and have waited until now to share it. (By the way, our Canadian friends may know this story.)

It reflects the way we, not just as family members but as members of a community that sees itself as mishapachah, deal with our dead even in the most unusual circumstances.

In this age of materialism essential values being compromised, this story truly stands out as a testament to human value and the values of our people. 

Let me share a story as reported in The Washington Post last year.

Only four people were going to this Holocaust survivor’s funeral. Then 200 strangers showed up.

Eddie Ford was a Holocaust survivor, and he was dying of cancer. At the end of his life, the 85-year-old did not have any close family members or friends left. He was alone.

In a hospital in Toronto, Ford requested a rabbi visit him because he wanted to connect to his Jewish faith, even though he had not been practicing his religion. Ford had spent years of his childhood in Budapest raised by a Christian family who hid him during the war.

Rabbi Zale Newman, who visits hospital patients on Fridays, started dropping by Ford’s hospital room. At Ford’s urging, Rabbi Newman taught him simple Jewish blessings and songs. Over eight months, the men got to know each other, Newman grew fond of Ford and promised him a Jewish burial. That was Ford’s wish.

Newman, a volunteer rabbi with The Village Shul and Jewish Volunteer Services in Toronto, found a funeral home an hour’s drive away that would bury Ford at no charge.

But when Ford died on January 29th, Newman had a problem: He needed a minyan – the minimum number of men required to make a Jewish funeral official. He didn’t know who to ask. Newman put a request on Facebook at almost 11 p.m. on January 30th asking for volunteers to attend the graveside funeral the following day at noon. He knew it was a long shot.

“Can you come escort a Hero of the Holocaust for his final journey,” Newman wrote. He added: “Please dress warmly.” The temperature in Toronto would be minus16 degrees.

Three people responded and said they would be there.

“I said, ‘Okay, there would be four of us,” Newman said in the interview with The Washington Post.

The following morning, when he arrived at the cemetery, he saw a long line of cars. “I thought, Oh, no, there’s another funeral,” he said. “I don’t know where it is. I don’t know where Eddie’s plot is.”

He stopped some people and asked whose funeral they were attending. They said, “Mr. Ford.”

Newman realized the traffic jam was for his friend, the one he thought might be buried almost alone. He had to drive far down the road to find a parking spot.

“By the time I walked up there, I found 200 people waiting there in a circle,” he said. It was so cold that everyone had hats and hoods and scarves covering their faces. Newman could hardly make out people’s faces as he eulogized Ford and gave him a proper Jewish burial. “All I saw was hundreds of pairs of eyes,” he said. But he did spot telltale signs of who were behind the coats and scarves. “I saw some beards, so I knew there were religious people, and I saw some nose rings, so I knew there were some cool people,” said Newman, 63. Newman, a hedge fund manager, said he was overwhelmed by the collective gesture.

“There was so much purity,” Newman said. “There was no recognition, no way to get paid back. I’m not a mushy guy, but I went home and cried for an hour.”

He posted on Facebook again, telling the story of the day:

“I am in tears just thinking about how humbling and awesome it is to be part of the Jewish People who on very short notice; would drop everything, leave whatever they were planning on doing, drive a long distance, to stand outside in an open field, on a super freezing, blowing, windy day to escort a sweet, little Jew from Budapest, who was unknown to almost all them, on his final journey.”

He said two of Ford’s relatives were there, a nephew and a brother. Newman said he did not know much about either man. He added that as people advance in age, many have already buried most of their friends. “Eddie was 85; he was the last man standing,” Newman said.

Ford told him his life story during their Friday visits: Ford was six when the war broke out in Hungary. He was taken from his parents in Budapest and put in hiding with a family who kept him until the war was over. Because the family was Christian, he did not learn Jewish rituals and customs. Ford’s father perished.

After the war, Ford reconnected with his mother and brother he barely knew, and they moved to Toronto when Ford was 16. He worked as a handyman and performed singing and comedy acts in nightclubs. He was married and divorced. Ford lovingly cared for his mother when she became sick and died years ago, Newman said, adding that Ford never mentioned he had a brother who was still alive. Newman said Ford had a big personality and loved to sing and tell stories.

He said he always looked forward to his weekly visits with Ford. “No one should die alone,” Newman said. “No one should be alone while they’re alive. We have to find the elderly and visit them.” He said this experience has reinforced his idea that “one act of goodness leads to another. “This is the best of humanity,” he said.

Do you know there is a Midrashic text that says God wear’s tefillin? And the rabbis ask: what could be written in God’s tefillin? And they answer: Who is like you amongst the nations of the world?”

I always want to be careful when I speak of our particularity and unique qualities. But sometimes, with humility, I realize that to be a part of our people is to inherit an extraordinary system of values that enable us to elevate the essence of the living spirit and soul. And perhaps it is here, in the face of the dying and the dead, that we realize it best. You know the Midrash of Jacob’s son – Shema Yisrael.

Eddie Ford is no longer. We know little about his life. But he inherited responsibility, the connection to covenant. We learn that his death enabled us to experience the transcendence of being a Jew. We must remember moments like this, remind ourselves and teach our children well.

In these days when death is being cheapened and neglected, we must always remember it is the ultimate teacher of a meaningful life.

Vayechi. And Jacob lives. May it be said about each one of us when we reach our final days.

Shabbat Shalom.

# # #