Congregation B'nai Israel

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Praying for Healing Into Death


The concept of wisdom (hokhmah) in the Torah is not that of sage philosophy or metaphysical abstraction. Wisdom in the Bible means doing what is right in each situation. It is in this sense that the Jewish perspectives on death and the Jewish mourning practices are “wise.” They are wise because they provide a total framework within which we are given the opportunity to learn to accept death, to mourn completely, and to live again fully.

It is the question of accepting death as a part of life that I think is so challenging and leads to such explosive scenarios as Terri Schiavo’s. The decisions being made around her by her parents and her husband confronted us with fears of mortality and questions of ethics, but for others, it raised insecurities about decisions they have made or will have to make for their own loved ones.

Those insecurities were prompted by protesters so definite about the mysteries of life and death that they surrendered wisdom for certainty. And then they challenged the sanctity of the hospice they stood in front of by insulting caregivers’ efforts (professional and volunteer) to create a place committed to comfort (palliative) care. That hospice, along with so many others, addresses the possibility of healing when the fight for cures has passed. The patients in their care are treated with love with their fierce determination to alleviate pain and respectful of the life each person has lived. The caregivers are unafraid of death and pain, reverent of the mysteries of life and death, aware of the limitations of medication technology and of the possibilities of love and care.

There is no easy answer about Terri Schiavo’s case. Is hydration and nutrition through a feeding tube for someone in a persistent vegetative state a medical procedure, or is it equivalent to food and water – basic needs? Arguments are made on both sides of the question, and both are compelling. Yet, for those of us who say that, under similar circumstances, it is a medical procedure, we turn to our sources and Jewish wisdom that teaches Judaism is concerned about the quality of life, about the mitigation of pain, and the cure of illness wherever possible. If no cure or remission can be achieved, nature may be allowed to take its course. To prolong life is a mitzvah; to prolong dying is not. (Rabbi Moshe Tendler)

To face the wisdom of Jewish tradition is to acknowledge there is no black-and-white answer. While it is true, there comes a time when it is appropriate to allow the flame of life to flicker out, when that time actually arrives is difficult to determine. That is why it is so crucial to create Covenants with our loved ones to talk about what is most important to us in our lives, how we value our lives, and how those values can be reflected in our deaths.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg observes Jewish wisdom when she teaches: “Death can be a teacher about the fragility of life and its beauty, about the deep importance of loved ones and treasured values, about the ways in which life gives us extraordinary gifts, that even loss sometimes brings blessing in its wake. Death is a teacher about God’s presence in the world, about human goodness and compassion and love. Death is a teacher about courage and hope and faith, about believing in that which we cannot see, about moving through the valley of the shadow until light is visible again…”