Vayechi: When Torah and Life Intersect

Vayik’revu y’mei Yisrael lamut…

When Israel’s time to die drew near… (Parshat Vayechi, Gen. 47:29)

Vayik’revu y’mei David lamut…

When David’s time to die drew near… (Haftarah of Vayechi, I Kings 2:1)

This parashah marks the yahrzeit (anniversary of the death) of my father, Dr. David Kligler of blessed memory. He passed away on the 10th of Tevet, 5740, which corresponded that year with December 30, 1979. As I write today, January 1, 2015, on the Jewish calendar it is the 10th of Tevet, 5775, the precise anniversary of my father’s passing.

In Jewish practice, when remembering a loved one, especially a parent, it is customary to honor their memory by teaching some Torah in their name. In following that custom today, I wish to remember my dad by sharing the story of the mysterious way our lives and family history intersected and merged with the Torah reading of that week: Parashat Vayechi, the closing chapters of the Book of Genesis.

My father’s father was Professor Israel Jacob Kligler. He came to the United States from Eastern Europe as a child at the very end of the 19th century. Young Israel Jacob proved himself a brilliant student, and became one of the first Jews to earn a PhD from New York University. His field was infectious diseases and public health. A Zionist, by 1920 he had moved to British Mandate Palestine and his innovative and tireless research proved crucial in the eradication of malaria in the region. My father David was born in Jerusalem in 1926 to Israel Jacob and Helen Kligler.

Israel Jacob did not live to see the creation of the State of Israel, the cause to which he had dedicated his life. He passed away in 1944, and was buried on the Mount of Olives, the most ancient active Jewish cemetery in the world, overlooking his beloved Jerusalem. David was serving in the US army at the time, painfully separated from his father by oceans and a world war. David and his mother Helen remained in the United States. David attended medical school, married Deborah, they had three sons and built a meaningful life here in White Plains, New York.

But the longing for home, and for his distant father, apparently never left David, who suffered from tormenting depression. In our family, the ancient Jewish longing to return from exile to our homeland mingled inextricably with our father’s own longing to be restored to his home in Jerusalem. In 1968, just after the Six-Day War, our family traveled to Israel. The Mount of Olives cemetery had been in Jordanian hands for 19 years, and was destroyed and desecrated. David searched for his father Israel Jacob’s gravesite but it could not be located. A monument would soon be placed near the gravesite to mark about 40 graves that had been destroyed, including my grandfather’s.

In 1979 my older brother Dan and his wife Roberta made aliyah to Israel, and on the 3rd night of Chanukah their first child Eitan was born. The bris was in Jerusalem and new grandfather David flew over for the occasion. The event somehow left our father feeling deeply fulfilled and complete, and back in New York two weeks later he ended his lifelong suffering and took his own life.

This is the story I want to tell: We were standing on a hillside attending my father’s burial at Mt. Hebron Cemetery in Flushing, Queens. We looked out at the Van Wyck Expressway, the old World’s Fair fairgrounds, and Shea Stadium – a New York vista if there ever was one. Our dear friend Cantor Bill Wolff was officiating. In his brief eulogy Bill pointed us toward the week’s Torah reading, Vayechi:

Jacob lived in the land of Egypt for 17 years…When Israel’s time came to die, he summoned his son Joseph and said to him…”When I am laid to rest with my ancestors, carry me out of Egypt and bury me in their burial place [the Cave of Machpelah, near Hebron]…Swear to me”…When Jacob was done charging his sons he drew his feet into the bed, breathed his last, and was gathered to his ancestors. (Genesis 47:28-31, 49:33)

Bill then pointed us to the Haftarah portion of Vayechi. The Haftarah (or Haftorah) is a passage from the later books of the Hebrew Bible that was long ago selected to accompany each week’s Torah portion. The Haftarah is always somehow thematically linked to the Torah portion. The Haftarah of Vayechi is about King David at the end of his life:

When David’s time to die drew near, he charged his son Solomon: I am going the way of all the earth; you must now be strong and show yourself a man, keeping faith with YHVH your God…Then David slept with his ancestors, and was buried in the City of David. (I Kings 2: 1-3, 10)

The layers of synchronicity we experienced at that moment overwhelmed us. The week’s Torah and Haftarah readings brought the deaths of Israel/Jacob and David together, just as we knew that our David’s tragic death was intimately connected to his father Israel Jacob’s death decades earlier. The patriarch Israel/Jacob made his children swear to carry his remains out of exile and back to the Promised Land, in fact to the burial cave in Hebron that his grandfather Abraham had purchased and where Israel/Jacob’s father Isaac and mother Rebecca were buried. How strange that we were standing in Mt. Hebron cemetery. But rather than looking toward the Jerusalem hills, this Mt. Hebron had a view of Shea Stadium! King David was buried in the City of David, which is Jerusalem, and slept there with his ancestors. Wordlessly, we were immediately certain that our David needed to rest in his birthplace Jerusalem with his ancestors. What David Kligler could not realize in his lifetime we at least would allow him now: we would end his painful exile and bury him on the Mount of Olives so that he could finally be with his father Israel Jacob.

We made arrangements to have David’s body flown to Israel. My brother Dan flew home to Israel and went to the Mount of Olives cemetery office to purchase a burial plot. Alas, all of the plots overlooking Jerusalem had been sold, and we would have to settle for a plot on the far side of the hill. But wait – looking through their files, the cemetery managers found that there already was a plot reserved in the name of Kligler that had never been filled! We did not know that decades earlier David’s mother Helen had reserved her own plot next to her husband Israel Jacob. Helen had never used it; her wish was to be cremated when she had died. A plot was waiting in the Kligler name, somehow “reserved” for David, right next to his father’s original – now destroyed – burial place, and in the shadow of the new monument that had since been erected. David is buried there, with his father, where he belongs, and if you visit his grave you are graced with the most extraordinary view of Jerusalem.

Then David slept with his ancestors, and was buried in the City of David.

How blessed my family was during that tragedy to get a glimpse of the usually invisible lines of connection that seem to link us through time and space, and to be offered a clear, almost irrefutable sense of what needed to happen next. How strange the way that moment’s Torah reading and our present moment aligned, and how strange that potential stumbling blocks evaporated as we did for David what we knew we must do.

As a rabbi, I have accompanied many families through the portal of death and loss. It is a mysterious time, when the veil between the worlds becomes less opaque. Many mourners have described to me their own wondrous and inexplicable sense that suddenly there is a meaningful and interconnected pattern to apparently disparate events. What we usually dismiss as coincidence becomes charged with meaning and importance. Is this a psychological coping mechanism or is it a window into a level of reality to which we are usually oblivious? I will let others argue about that. I’m too busy marveling at it all.

There is yet another synchronous aspect to my father’s passing that I wish to add. As I mentioned earlier, my father had died on the Tenth of Tevet, known in Hebrew as Asara B’Tevet, the day on which I write these words. Asara B’Tevet is a fast day on the Jewish calendar that marks the day Jerusalem was besieged by King Nebuchadnezzar’s armies more than 2,500 years ago. It is a day of mourning for Jews, mourning for Jerusalem’s destruction and for our subsequent long exile. How strangely fitting that my father had chosen this day to die.

And so, when I mourn for Jerusalem, I mourn for my father David, of blessed memory. When I rejoice for Jerusalem, I rejoice for my father David, of blessed memory. The past and the present, the stories of the Bible and the stories of my own family intertwine and merge, forever and ever. I am embedded in a blessed mystery. Amen.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Jonathan