On the face of it, Genesis ends happily: About to die, Jacob assures his own burial the way he wants it, back home in Israel, not Egypt. Then, he surrounds himself with his children, and each receives a final blessing.
But below the surface, things are not so rosy. The funeral part works out fine, but not the rest. What Jacob offers most of his children is hardly a blessing. Reuben will lose his first-born primacy. Simeon and Levi are cursed. Issachar will become a serf. Dan will barely survive.
When the children said their final goodbyes, they could hardly have been overflowing with filial adoration. If Jacob deserves any praise for this deathbed scene, it must be for the cool composure with which he announces the unhappy future of his less fortunate offspring.
Jacob summoned up more resignation than most of us would, but he had help. Except while mourning for Rachel (says the midrash), he was visited by the spirit of God and (according to the 19th century commentator Rabbi Malbim) God even added a few days onto his life to make up for that period. Virtually his whole life, then, he was gifted with prophecy. Knowing his children's future in advance, he had lots of time to accept it.
We, however, who must manage without prophecy, are loath to write off our children so quickly. Their future is open, we say; we pray they will have the good fortune to shape their own destiny. On our deathbeds, we'd like to leave behind whatever wisdom we have gained in our lives to guide them in theirs.
They Didn't Wait Too Long
What would be our final words to our children as they help us die? Probably not, "Buy low and sell high!" We would restate our love, I imagine; make peace, if there was enmity between us; and if we had it, offer up moral and spiritual advice.
Medieval Jews (from the 12th century on) did not leave this to chance. They arranged their spiritual estate no less than their material one. The great 20th century scholar Israel Abrahams was able to collect in his lifetime some 300 spiritual wills; the number was surely much larger — these were just the ones that had survived.
Parents did not wait for the last minute either. Not knowing when they would die, they began their wills when their children were young, and added to them as they grew older.
Sometimes, like Jacob, they laid down their own burial wishes — 14th-century Eleazar of Mainz, very touchingly says he wants to be buried "at the right hand of my saintly father. If the space be a little narrow, I am sure he loves me well enough to make room for me."
But, mostly, they left personal advice for their children. Another Eleazer, whom Abrahams calls "an average man," not a rabbi, follows his burial request by instructing his daughters to "respect their husbands and be amiable to them." His sons, too, should "honor their wives more than themselves and treat them with tender consideration."
Children should study and give charity. Shabbetai Horowitz, who lived in the 17th century, tells his daughters, "If your husbands become angry, leave them, and after the time of wrath has passed, rebuke them for their conduct."
By the 18th century, the wills offer more than advice. They supply statements of faith to guide children. One of the most interesting examples is David Friesenhausen (1750-1828), who says, "I believe with perfect faith that the whole human race, Jew or Gentile, wise or ignorant, righteous or wicked, will enjoy felicity at the end, after bearing the punishment due to each according to his acts."
Wouldn't it be nice to know that after we die, our children will know what we hold dearest? But these days, we don't write it down; we don't even stop long enough to figure out what it is we'd write in the first place.
You'll read this and promise to do it tomorrow. But probably you won't. Who wants to face up to his own mortality? To be honest, even as I write this, I realize I haven't yet taken my own advice. But I intend to. I don't want to die spiritually intestate.
Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman teaches at HUC-JIR in New York.