The practical pasuk in Parshas VaY’chi for all generations is found in last week’s parshah, VaY’chi, where two of our patriarchs speak of their own deaths. It signifies an awareness that life comes to an end, applying it towards logistics involved with estate planning, and ensuring that the body is brought into the ground in a halachic manner. “Yaakov realized that he was going to leave his world... He wanted something to be sure to happen,” said Rabbi Paysach Krohn. “He specifically asked Yosef to swear to him that he would be buried exactly where he wanted to be buried.”
The renowned maggid and author used this example from the parshah as an introduction to a lengthy online presentation on the end of life that was organized by the National Association of Chevra Kadisha. “There are so many important things to take care of and now is the time to do it. When somebody is very ill, it is very difficult. Now is the time to watch this and make sure that things get done,” Rabbi Krohn said. He lives within a few blocks of Rabbi Elchonon Zohn, the Founding President of the National Association of Chevra Kadisha (NASCK), and his wife is a chevrah kadisha member.
Between the passing of Yaakov Avinu and our time, there have been numerous examples of Jewish leaders who planned ahead for their deaths, outlining how they wished to be remembered, how their descendants should conduct themselves, and how their estates would be allocated. One example provided by Rabbi Krohn was the author of Y’sod V’Shoresh HaAvodah, Rabbi Alexander Susskind of Grodno, who died at age 54.
“He wrote a very powerful sefer, and before his death he wrote a will for his family and another will for the chevrah kadisha – what the mourners can say, what’s to be written on a tombstone,” he said. “In a sense this is called the ethical will. He told them how to behave, how to relate to other people, how to be close to Hashem, how to do mitzvos. It’s a fascinating 46 chapters.”
The presentation then continued with Dr. Howard Lebowitz on the need for a halachic will to address situations where halachah conflicts with medical advice, such as cutting off life support and preventing autopsies. “When you’ve been at the bedside as often as I have, surrounded by a care team that is really trying to do their best for the patient, and still in the secular world they give lip service to patient autonomy,” he said. “The patients can speak for themselves through a halachic living will and the ‘Emes card.’”
Other speakers included Rabbi Moshe Weinberger, who spoke on the experience of the neshamah after death and burial, Rabbi Mordechai Willig who spoke on the halachos concerning care for elderly parents, brief documentaries on preventing cremation and the importance of a written will, and a couple of inspiring songs by Rabbi Boruch Levine.
Besides hospital care, the halachic living will can also prevent cremation, which has become the most popular method of disposing of human remains in society. “One out of every two Yidden is going to be cremated; it is a tragedy on many levels,” said NASCK Founding President Rabbi Elchonon Zohn. “The majority of Jews have no knowledge or appreciation of the concepts of Judaism, such as the eternity of our neshamah.” He added that it is a tragedy for all Jews, in particular baalei t’shuvah who must live with the pain that their cremated family members’ remains were desecrated, while their neshamos are experiencing distress.
The presentation provided examples from individuals working in nursing homes, baalei t’shuvah, and pulpit rabbis who either encountered situations where people were cremated, or where they succeeded in canceling cremation in favor of a halachic burial.
Rabbi Zohn’s involvement in mitzvos relating to kavod ha’meis began when he was a yeshivah student. “I had the z’chus of getting involved in a chevrah kadisha as a bachur. I was zocheh to be a shomer for a rosh yeshivah. In the morning, I was recommended to stay for the taharah.” Two years later, the Vaad Harabonim of Queens was looking to start a communal chevrah kadisha for Queens and Rabbi Zohn served as its founder. Four decades later, he became a guide to Jewish burial societies across the country.
“A local chevrah kadisha does taharah, sometimes sh’mirah” he said. But in the past decade, as cremation rates picked up among unaffiliated Jews and the importance of writing down one’s final wishes was affirmed by courts, NASCK turned to advocacy and outreach. “We were training chevrah kadishas. We were a resource.”
One example that Rabbi Zohn highlighted was the case of a 105-year-old woman whose body was kept in storage for four months as a court deliberated its disposal. Her father was a talmid of Rav Elchonon Wasserman Hy”d. But she left her family at a young age and was completely assimilated. Her great-nephew was a baal t’shuvah and sought to have a halachic burial for her. But her will was written many years ahead of her death and it stipulated a cremation. The court ruling was based on the will.
The attention given to that case demonstrated that a bedside conversation conducted in the final days of a person’s life does not override the wishes of a will written at a time when that person was irreligious, or when non-observant family members seek a cremation.
“The Shabbos VaY’chi program is outreach,” Rabbi Zohn said. “We have to realize that it is a process.” It involves literature, lectures, and an affordable cemetery in Florida. “In three years, 1,500 people have reserved graves who would have been cremated. The cost of the burial is $3,600 and it is negotiable. The whole cemetery is built on a model of kavod.”
In the process of easing the pain of the bereaved, the panelists urged newlywed couples to begin paying for life insurance, so that in the event of an unexpected death, the expenses of the bereaved would not be detracting from other charitable causes. At age 40, one should at least have a conversation on where they wish to be buried. “Look into it. You don’t have to make a decision, but at least know and have a plan,” Rabbi Zohn said.
The resources provided in the presentation include the website ShabbosVayechi.org, which provides resources on halachic living wills, ensuring halachic burials for family members, and understanding the work of chevrah kadisha organizations. It also has a recording of the presentation that first appeared online this past Motza’ei Shabbos. “Live with the discomfort if you must. It is a good discomfort, and it is a tremendous responsibility,” Rabbi Zohn said. “Recognize that it is a reality.”
By Sergey Kadinsky