Sermon: Shabbat Va-y-chi- Adding Life to Years

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 14 January 2017

Since October 2016 Granny has been missing.  She was normally seen regularly as one of a pod of orcas, otherwise known as killer whales. Granny has stewarded her pod of whales, showing them where to fish, keeping them in order, leading them as they graze the Northern Pacific Ocean off Vancouver ever since her reproductive years which must have ended many decades ago.

Granny, less sentimentally known by marine biologists studying her pod as J2, has been followed since 1976 when she was already past calving.   Analysis suggests she may have been 105 years old – born before the outbreak of the First World War.  Her life which must now be assumed to have ended helps us to understand what the elderly potentially are in our communities, as she was in her pod of over 70 orcas – guides, holders of important memory, stewards of community values.

Rabbi Michael Strassfeld writes in his Book of Life (p431), that we should consider the lives of those who are the elders of our communities to be a treasury, people who can look at a situation, examine a relationship with the perspective of a lifetime.  We close our ears to the elderly at our moral peril.

Every month here at Alyth the Association of Jewish Refugees meets for lunch and to hear a speaker or conduct a discussion.  This week it was my turn to be that speaker.  We spoke about “Making Memory”.  AJR members are people with the memory of what it was as a Jew to have to flee the country of your birth leaving behind those you love, so often never to see them again as they were murdered by the Nazis.  AJR members are the people who can enable us to gain perspective on the struggles of refugees of our day, to see them as people with potential to enhance our society just as these Jewish refugees have helped build Britain.  They are also people whose experiences can teach us to be vigilant against the early signs of intolerance and ethno centred politics.  They will not be with us for a great many more years.

One of the women who was extraordinarily impressive at the AJR lunch is a 94 year old lady called Hetty.  She was born in Cologne in Germany and sent here to England as a young teenager when her father returned from being interned by the Nazis.  Her story is to every Jewish community the tragically familiar one of having lost almost all of her family in the Shoah, yet building a life for herself in her new country.  Now at 95 she goes every year back to Cologne to give talks in five secondary schools about her experiences ensuring today’s German teenagers.  They listen with rapt attention to her words and have accompanied her to set up a stolperstein, a stumble stone plaque outside the apartment in Cologne from which her family were taken by the Nazis.

Hetty knows that she will not be able to tell her story in Cologne for much longer.   She has recorded her experiences and made a video for the Speilberg archive so that they won’t be lost – but nothing will match the power of young people looking into her eyes and hearing her first hand.

We will have that something of experience here at Alyth next Shabbat morning when we hear from Kindertransport survivor Ruth Barnett as she relates the story of the Armenian and Roma genocides of the twentieth century and what they mean to us as Jews.  Both Hetty and Ruth have a moral legacy to pass on which we must hear.

This is what Jacob was doing in our Torah portion.  According to the Torah account he was 147 years of age so it is not surprising that he knew he was close to death.   He was given the opportunity that not all of us have – to have all of his children around him, apart sadly from his daughter Dinah from whom he was estranged some years before, and to be able to give them all parting words of blessing and critique.  Some of these words are lovely – to Judah “your brothers shall heap praise on you, the sceptre shall not depart from Judah.” (Genesis 49:8-10), Dan “will plead his people’s cause as one of Israel’s tribes” (16), “The bounty of the timeless hills let them be on Joseph’s head” (26).

Some are condemnatory, to Rueben “you are excessive in exalting yourself” (3), to Simeon and Levi “Cursed is your anger so fierce and your fury so harsh.” (7)

Biblical scholars suggest that what we are really hearing in Jacob’s blessings and condemnations is a state of the tribes of Israel at some point in their history from the perspective of a courtly critic, but the scene in which these words are put is truly touching, a man’s sons and grandchildren there to hear their patriarch give them the benefit of his years of life experience and the wisdom and insight that that those years have given him.

Talmud Pesachim 56a has it that from this encounter comes the way in which we say the first two lines of the Shema.   It is as if the sons of Jacob were able to reassure their father that they would continue his legacy of the Israelite religion and relationship with God that became Judaism by saying to him on his deathbed “Shema Yisrael, hear O Israel (the alternative name for Jacob), Adonai Eloheynu (the Eternal One will be our God), Adonai Echad (the Eternal God is one).  Then Jacob, hearing his sons, said in his faltering now quiet voice “Baruch Shem Cavod Malchuto l’olam Va’ed” – Blessed be God’s glorious name, now I know that His Kingdom will last forever and ever.  That perhaps is why we say the Baruch Shem Cavod in a a quieter tone than the first line of the Shema.

Jacob’s were good final days – with the chance to express what he needed to and the opportunity to hear those whom he had brought into the world assuring him that the values he had established would continue. L’dor vaDor, from generation to generation.

Two years ago Dr Atul Gawande, Professor of Surgery and Public Health at Harvard Medical School published his book Being Mortal.  In this book he critiqued the way in which our western society deals with our final years.   He says that our way to support someone at the end of their life is to take things away from them in the name of health, giving the example of people with Alzheimer’s who want a cookie being given pureed food in case of choking.   He writes that our old age homes and hospital set up for caring for the very elderly have the tendency to look after people by their symptoms – their end of life problems, not by their personalities and choices, they are not sufficiently known as people.  We extend life but severely compromise the quality of it.

He says that this need not be an inevitable consequence of our society where our economy is based on enabling young people to be free to work and live where they want, generating pensions which mean that in their own old age they can live without family.    We could work harder to give the very elderly choice and hear their understanding of the trade-offs that they are willing to make in order to continue living life with quality.   He writes that the focus in recent years on the question of assisted dying has made us forget that it is assisted living that we all will one day need.

The Prophet Zechariah paints a beautiful vision of the future of relationship between generations, one which you can see here at Alyth in our JOY programme, joining old and young, where we enjoy the proximity of our Senior Club and our Kindergarten and bring the two together on many Monday afternoons, for our elders to read and speak with our youngest.   Zechariah (8:4-5)  speaks of a perfect future when :  Old men and old women shall again dwell in the streets of Jerusalem, and every man with his staff in his hand for the fullness of days.  And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets.

Judaism is a religion of L’dor va Dor – from generation to generation, from Jacob to his children and grandchildren, from each of us to the children who are part of our community and from them back to us.  May our oldest generation be as close to our hearts as our youngest.