In this week’s Torah portion, we hear Jacob’s final blessing to his sons and watch him die, again. “I am about to be gathered to my kin,” he says. “Bury me with my fathers in the cave at Machpelah, in the land of Canaan, where my grandfather Abraham and my grandmother Sarah were buried; where my father Isaac and my mother Rebekah were buried; where I buried my wife Leah.” And then, Torah says, after he finished his instructions, he drew his feet into the bed and, breathing his last, was gathered to his people.
Why must we witness Jacob’s death every year? Especially when we, over the course of our lifetimes, will witness the death of our loved ones and already know intimately the lessons of loss and grieving?
I believe there are two important details in Jacob’s death scene that help us not only observe but help us to make sense of a loved one’s passing.
The first is how Jacob “drew his feet into the bed” and then exhaled his last breath. Biblical scholars read this simply as an idiom for “he died.” The sages, on the other end of the spectrum, read it quite literally - that his feet were actually dangling off the bed and he drew them up, lay down and died.
While “drawing up the feet” is not unique to Jacob, I feel like it resonates deeply for him. Afterall, he is the man whose name means “heel” and who journeyed great distances both physically and spiritually throughout his life.
And while Jacob speaks a lot in the Torah portion, poetically blessing each son, he doesn’t reflect as much on his own life’s journey. We are the ones who assume his emotional transformations. He’s a deeply flawed character who changes over the course of his life, but we never really know what sense he made of it.
If Jacob were to do a life review, I imagine it would it read like this:
“It began with a foot. A heel, actually. The midwives told me that as my brother was born, my mother tried to step off the birthing blocks, to take a breath, maybe two, before starting to birth me. But, I gave her no respite. Holding onto my brother’s heel, I was born in the same laborious heave and belabored breath.
I spent my childhood under my mother’s heels, pulling at her hem, tripping her toes as she stirred the stew, poured the tea and watered the camels. As I grew, I kept my heels beneath me, squatting in a corner of her tent, taking up the mending, threshing the wheat and crushing it on the grindstone.
While dusty, my heels were as smooth as the day of my birth. They had only pitter-pattered about the camp. The strong sandals were made and presented to my brother, who braved the wild and captured my father’s heart.
I nervously curled my toes the day I offered the lentils for his birthright, afraid he’d realize the trick and strike me. The day I took his blessing, I was bolder. I stomped my heels as heavy as I could to pantomime his heft. But I had gone too far. When I fled the camp, my feet bled. The wilderness was thorny and the brush scraped the virgin skin. The night I slept and saw the ladder - you’d have thought I’d try to climb it - but my feet throbbed so much and I couldn’t rise to reach the first rung.
Those same heels, bloody and bruised, carried me to Haran where I met my future. In the seven, then fourteen years where I labored for my wives, calluses grew - thick and strong and unfeeling. The years hardened them: from confronting my brother, to the rape of my daugther…the loss of my wife, the staged death of my son, the famine that left us hungry every night… I lost my name and gained a new one - no longer defined by my heels, but by the struggle of a calloused heart.
My sons carried me to Egypt - my feet could not bear the weight anymore. Upon seeing Joseph, I stood on my heels one last time to kiss him before taking to bed. The night I blessed my sons, one by one, I dangled my feet over the side of the chaise. Then, like a young lad again curled beside my mother, I drew my heels to my chest, released my woes and slept.”
It seems to me that for Jacob to draw his feet to the bed is to come full circle - like a fetus in the womb, a child curled up asleep. I imagine it was a return to a purer, more innocent state after a lifetime of hardship and transformation. A hard life, but a meaningful one.
Perhaps it’s so for all of us. Whereas once our feet carried us on our life’s journey, our use of them represents our development as individuals…at the end we take leave of them. Jacob, more than any of our ancestors, represents the struggle life brings us. He is rewarded with a peaceful end, where he says what he needs to say, bids farewell to his loved ones, and goes to his eternal slumber. He dies knowing that his tumultuous life was full of meaning and that his legacy lives on safely in the next generation. May we all have such peace at such a ripe old age.
But we know the reality. We know that for some there is no peace, and for some it is not a ripe old age. How do we live with the fact that we suffer or die too early or leave this earth having not made our peace?
Here again, Jacob’s death scene speaks to us. Genesis tells us he was “gathered to his people.” Yes, another idiom for death, says biblical scholars. Archaeologists will tell you it’s quite literal: ancient people's bones were placed in family ossuaries and tombs.
And yet, what a powerful way to put it.
Judaism has a poorly defined sense of what happens after we die. The official Jewish stance seems to be, “we have no clue, so we’ll just take some guesses.” It’s similar to the way we define God - it’s something so big and mysterious that we try to capture just one side of it, like concentrating on one facet of a diamond at a time.
When Jacob is “gathered to his people,” it implies a sort of reunion - of souls finding one another in the great-mystery-after-life. Do we join others in the afterlife? Well, sometimes we might not want to overthink it: it can be very comforting to think that we may be reunited with our loved ones in some way, somewhere, after we die.
There’s also a very physical way we Jews manifest this, that, in my mind, is one of the most powerful things we do as a temple community.
Many synagogues, Woodlands included, make bulk purchases of cemetery plots at nearby cemeteries. Woodlands has about 3 sections of plots at Sharon Gardens Cemetery in Valhalla. We do this, first and foremost, because Jews, for centuries, have been taking care of our dead - making sure they are buried in a dignified manner by compassionate, loving hands. Also, we help families in their most dire moment of need. If a loved one dies and they haven’t pre-purchased a plot somewhere, Bob Apter, a member of Woodlands, is always on call. He helps our families acquire a plot in the Woodlands section - making a stressful situation that much more manageable. What Bob does is nothing short of a mitzvah. Thank you, Bob.
But what’s most powerful about this Woodlands section is actually visiting it. I do this, as you can imagine, quite a lot.
A few weeks ago, I was officiating a funeral for a long-time Woodlands member. We rolled up to Sharon Gardens and processed to the gravesite. As the officiant, I’m the first to park and approach the grave. As I walked over, I saw familiar names - Woodlands members, their family and loved ones - the names greeting me like seeing old friends. As I found my place, I looked down. There was the name of a congregant who died many years ago, who I was so, so fond of. Instinctually, I picked up a nearby stone and placed it on the grave. I got a little choked up and I smiled. Then I began the service.
If you want to understand the power of community, just attend a funeral in the Woodlands section of Sharon Gardens. The stones stood proud, like witnesses. It was as if the community had assembled, present AND past. The living, there to say goodbye to a friend, and the dead there to welcome the latest one to be gathered to her people.
This Shabbat, we must yet again remember that community is formed not just when we walk through the doors of our synagogue. It is in the sacred kinship we have to our ancestors and the familial connection we have by their account. It is what leads us towards righteousness, it is what will hold us up when the world feels bleak.