Thursday, December 16, 2010

Dignity and Disease: Parashat Vayachi

This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Vayachi, a portion filled with stories of a family striving for healing after several betrayals and years of distance. When reading this portion, a small detail in the opening verses attracted my attention: An anonymous person announces to Jacob that his son Joseph has arrived

א וַיְהִי, אַחֲרֵי הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה, וַיֹּאמֶר לְיוֹסֵף, הִנֵּה אָבִיךָ חֹלֶה; וַיִּקַּח אֶת-שְׁנֵי בָנָיו, עִמּוֹ--אֶת-מְנַשֶּׁה, וְאֶת-אֶפְרָיִם. 1 And it came to pass after these things, that one said to Joseph: 'Behold, your father is sick.' And he took with him his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim.
ב וַיַּגֵּד לְיַעֲקֹב--וַיֹּאמֶר, הִנֵּה בִּנְךָ יוֹסֵף בָּא אֵלֶיךָ; וַיִּתְחַזֵּק, יִשְׂרָאֵל, וַיֵּשֶׁב, עַל-הַמִּטָּה. 2 And one told Jacob, and said: 'Behold, your son Joseph has come to you.' And Israel strengthened himself, and sat upon the bed.

Despite Joseph’s power and Jacob’s weakness, it is still important that Joseph and his sons are announced. The announcement provides Jacob with the ability to prepare himself and present himself as he would like in front of his son and grandsons.

The Etz Hayyim commentary comments on this verse by teaching us, “One should never enter the room of a sick or elderly person unannounced, lest they be embarrassed, indisposed, or not fit to receive visitors.”

If any of us have either been in a hospital or visited a loved one in a hospital, we know that part of what it means to be sick in a modern hospital is that strangers walk in and out your room without announcement or asking permission. It is a time when it is so easy for a patient to lose his dignity. Often he is without his favorite clothes, having every action of his life defined by others, and is lacking the basic control over his life and his fate – he is deprived of a certain type of dignity.

Dignity (in Hebrew kavod ) is the result of freedom and control over how one lives one’s life. We need to be able to use our rational capabilities in order to craft and modify our environment as we see necessary. Never is our dignity more at risk than when we are sick. The physically weaker we are, the more possible it is that those around us can deprive us of our privacy and our ability to make our own decisions.

However, part of being a Jew, and in particular a Jew committed to the halachic system, is about developing the discipline and consequent awareness necessary to always remember the divinity, worth, and dignity in the people around us. The rituals and traditions of our people remind us of the importance of how our actions in seemingly inconsequential moments have the power to create holiness and affirm the dignity of the people in our lives.

As our tradition teaches us in Mishnah Avot 2:13 : "Eli’ezar says: May the honor of your fellow be as precious to you as your own."  This week let us focus on the ways in which we can affirm the dignity of others in our lives through honesty, consideration, and respect for their freedom. Shavua Tov.