The messenger came from Goshen and reported to Yosef, "Behold, your father is sick" (Genesis, 48:1). It would seem that this was a fairly commonplace message, especially regarding elderly people, but in actuality, it was a very remarkable statement, an unheard-of statement.

According to Pirkei d'Rabbi Eliezer, there had never been illness in the world before this time. Death never came as the culmination of a long illness. A person would be fit as a fiddle one moment and dead the next. He would just sneeze, and his soul would depart through his nostrils.

Yaakov, however, prayed to Hashem that people should become ill so that they should have some inkling that death is imminent. "Please do not take my soul," he prayed, "before I have the opportunity to leave instructions for my children and my household."

Hashem accepted Yaakov's prayer. He became sick. And the messenger came to report to Yosef about the amazing thing that had happened in Goshen. "Behold, your father is sick." It was sensational news.

I once heard a radio newscaster comment on an air disaster, "Thank Heaven, they never knew what hit them. When a bomb goes off on an aircraft at thirty thousand feet, there is no time to think. You're just dead in an instant. They never had a chance to think, 'Yikes, I'm about to die.' They were spared the pain and the anguish of looking death in the face. Boom, and they were dead. Just like that."

Well, I suppose that is one way of looking at it, but it is not the Jewish way. The Pirkei d'Rabbi Eliezer describes the Jewish way. Terminal diseases may be painful, but at least they give a person a warning that he is about to depart from this world. He is forewarned that he must tie up the loose ends.

A person leaving this world must make a cheshbon hanefesh, taking spiritual stock of his life, what he has accomplished and what he has failed to accomplish. He must do teshuvah for his transgressions and shortcomings and prepare his soul for the next world. He must review all his outstanding obligations and make sure he has discharged them properly. He must leave instructions to his children and his household. He must make sure he is not leaving a mess for someone else to clean up. A lifetime of activity calls for a lot of wrapping up. A person who is struck by a bus and never knows what hit him will never have the opportunity to bring his life to a fitting conclusion. He misses out on a very great blessing.

When the Challenger shuttle exploded, there was much speculation about whether the crew members were aware that they were about to die. When they finally found the tapes, they heard some of them say, "Uh oh!" This caused a great uproar. Their attorneys wanted to sue NASA for the additional trauma of their having known about the impending disaster.

"Does it necessarily follow," wrote a gentile columnist at the time, "that it would have been more merciful that death come so instantaneously that the final conscious emotion was a sense of exhilaration? Or does such an end rob a person of the right to reflect, even if only for a few precious moments, on those things that make life worth living?"

For those who believe that death is the end, blissful ignorance at the moment of death is perhaps preferable to a few moments of agony. But for those who believe in the immortality of the soul, in punishment and reward in the next world, in an eternal afterlife, a few precious moments of preparation are priceless indeed.