The Book of Bereshit/Genesis closes with the family of Jacob reunited and ready to face the future. The Book of Shemot/Exodus lets us know that this future is not going to all be wine and roses. A new Pharaoh arises who did not know Joseph and this new king begins a process that will lead to the enslavement of the People of Israel and set the stage for the Exodus from Egypt.
The commentators are full of irony when they read that Pharaoh did not “know Joseph”. This could mean a lot of things. Joseph may have been an official of a former ruling house and the new ruler wants to erase his memory. It could mean that Pharaoh knew exactly who Joseph was and what he and done to save Egypt, but he just didn’t care. Or, the commentators note, he just pretended to not know about Joseph and didn’t care what history had said about him. In any case. Joseph is not really forgotten; there is just a desire to forget a time and a person that made the king feel uncomfortable.
There is no question that we are often just like Pharaoh. When something makes us uncomfortable, we tend to find ways to avoid it. How many of us have a garage or a basement that has needed to be cleaned for years and somehow, we never get to it? How many of us have boxes that were never unpacked from our past moves, that we still see sitting in a corner of a room and promise ourselves that someday we will get to it? One important lesson that a Rabbi learns is that he or she must comfort those who are uncomfortable and should also make those who are comfortable, uncomfortable. I have only been in New England for a relatively short time, but there is something I’ve noticed that makes people uncomfortable that should not be ignored like a box in the corner.
In the years of my Rabbinate I have spent a lot of time praying in synagogue, visiting hospitals, and calling those who are ill. These are all part of living and helping Jews find meaning in life. Spending time with people during their moments of joy, happiness and illness is a large part of my calling. I also have spent a lot of time in the cemetery and I hold no illusions about death and the pain it leaves behind in the hearts of the survivors.
There is a joke about a Rabbi who looks out at his congregation and, to get them to understand the importance of life, starts his sermon by saying “Everyone in this congregation is going to die”. A man in the front row gets a big smile on his face. The Rabbi is annoyed and repeats, “I can promise you, everyone in this congregation is going to die!” and the man’s grin gets even bigger. “Sir,” says the Rabbi, “why are you grinning when I tell you that everyone in this congregation is going to die?” The man’s smile grows even bigger as he replies, “I am not a member of this congregation.”
Talking about death is not a comfortable topic. We often don’t want to think about it, we don’t want to deal with it and we certainly don’t want to face it. Death fills us with fear and dread. My mother will soon be 98 years old. All her closest friends have died. My father was one of four boys in his family. They are all gone now and so are all their wives. My mother is the last of her generation. She does not look at death as something she fears. She looks at it as a reality of life. She has made new friends, most of them thirty years or more younger than she is. When she misses Shabbat services on Saturday morning, someone will call to make sure that she is alright.
I harbor no illusions about what the future holds. I have lost my father and a brother. There are now four of us left. I call my mother every evening because it is a blessing to be able to speak with her every day. Somedays we talk a lot. Other days the calls are shorter. My sister calls her every morning. My older brother calls in the evening and stops in on the weekend and my little brother checks in once a week. I would love to be able to say that we all agree on what the future will bring. We all have our own ideas about caring for our mother, but she still lives mostly alone, does her own checkbook and gets her hair done once a week.
My mother also has prepared for her own funeral. She has prearranged the service with a funeral home, she has plots bought and paid for in her synagogue’s cemetery and she has money set aside so that any extra expenses will be covered from her accounts. My mother has no doubt that the four of us could take care of her funeral. She, and my father, decided a long time ago, that they would be just as happy if we didn’t have to worry about it after they died.
When my father died, the only issue we had to deal with was who would speak at the funeral. Everything else he had prearranged. We were busy getting our far-flung family together for the funeral and we didn’t have to worry about caskets, shrouds, burial plots and where the service would be held.
That was my experience. What I want to share with you is that it should be your experience as well. Anyone who has arranged a funeral knows how burdensome it can be. There can be a whole laundry list of decisions that need to be made. Each one has a price attached to it and it all is added up at the end. Since I have been here in Connecticut I am continually amazed that people who research online every airline ticket, every hotel room, and shop for the best deal from clothing to appliances, never think that they can shop for their funeral. But you can shop for a funeral and yes, you can even get a discount on some parts of it if it is arranged in advance. You can lock in current prices and avoid inflation.
I can tell you that even the funeral homes like to prearrange a funeral because it becomes an asset that increases the value of their business. You have already paid for some parts of the service. As a member of BSBI you get the Rabbi to officiate at no additional charge. The Hevra Kadisha also prepares a body without charge to members of our community. Why not take advantage of your good health today and set up your funeral to be just the way you might want it to be? There are at least four different funeral homes you can investigate. We have cemetery plots in two different cemeteries, and we even have a section where an interfaith couple can be buried.
It is not depressing to arrange a funeral in advance. In fact, it can have moments of levity. It is amazing how many choices there are in caskets. I knew a man who picked a cemetery plot because he liked the view! There are some aspects of a funeral that Judaism requires. Jewish Law insists on burial in the earth, not in a mausoleum. Cremation is never permitted in Judaism and is especially inappropriate for all of us who are living in a post Holocaust world. Jewish funerals are supposed to take place no more than three days after the date of death. This is because we don’t allow embalming either. When we wait for the last minute to make important decisions, we can inadvertently make these kinds of errors. Planning helps us consider all the possibilities so we can make better decisions.
But it is possible to arrange for organ donations at the time of death. While Judaism does frown on autopsies, donating an organ, certainly heart, lungs, liver and kidneys, but also eyes and skin, fall under the category of saving lives and there is no more honor to the dead that we can perform than to give the gift of life to someone else. We all should be organ donors.
So, I hope I have not made you too uncomfortable, but it would be great that in this year that is just beginning that we take some time to think about our end. I do hope that this will begin a discussion, OK maybe not over lunch, but a discussion that will lead everyone to at least talk about their own death, not just with our children or our spouse, but to talk about our own death so we can begin to face the reality of our future.
Some people here may have parents who, thank God, are still alive and I encourage you to open this conversation with your own parents. Yes, there will be some who will not want to talk about it at first, but if you are patient and loving, they will come to understand that you are beginning a conversation out of love for their wishes and not as a wish for their death. I admit, this is not an easy conversation to have, but it is important. We should all have a living will to deal with our end of life issues, and we should have a funeral planned for the day that we know will come, so that those we leave behind will not have to make difficult decisions without us there to advise them. And yes, when you make your funeral arrangements, you should go over them with your children and family and place copies of what you have done with the other important papers they will need when that end comes.
We can’t tell our children how to grieve when we are gone. We can no longer give them advice on how to live. But we can leave for them instructions for our funeral, so they don’t have to guess our wishes at the end but instead can spend their time remembering the important lessons we have engraved on their hearts. If anyone needs help starting funeral arrangements, feel free to contact me and I am most happy to help. It is another free service that comes with membership. Maybe I can’t tell a Jew how to live, each must choose their Mitzvot every day they are alive, but I can help when it comes to preparing for the end.
May God help us as we prepare for the end that someday will come, and may God also bless us with many years of comfort knowing that we got the death thing covered as we say …..
Amen and Shabbat Shalom
Sermon given by Rabbi Randall Konigsburg at Beth Sholom B’nai Israel on Saturday, January 6, 2018.