> Spirituality > Personal Growth

How to Die

June 7, 2012 | by Rabbi Benjamin Blech

The doctor wasn’t smiling. “There’s no way I can sugarcoat it. You have a rare, fatal disease and there is no known cure.”

“How to Die” – the three words on last week’s cover of Time magazine – made my heart race. I rushed to read what has assumed such powerful personal relevance ever since my unforgettable moment in the doctor’s office.

I had no previous warning.

It was just my annual physical exam. No health problems. No complaints. Both my mother and father lived into healthy old age. I figured I’d receive my usual reassuring words that all was well, coupled with the suggestion that I return in six months to a year.

It seemed strange that the doctor wasn’t smiling when he called me to his office to provide me with the results of his examinations. It was then I began to suspect something might be wrong.

"It is hard for me to have to tell you this," he began. “There’s no way I can sugarcoat it. You are a Rabbi, a man of faith, and I know you’ll find a way to cope with the news I’m about to tell you. You have a fatal disease that is extremely rare, and there is no known cure."

I hardly heard the rest of what he was saying.

My head began to spin. I had been the Rabbi of a congregation for almost four decades. In my pastoral duties, I counseled the sick and I gave strength to the dying. Most often I seemed to know what to say to those confronted by the gravest challenges. I helped people face death.

For the first time in my life, even though I am 78 years old, I realized I'm actually going to die.

But this time it was so totally different. It wasn't happening to someone else. This was happening to me!

For the first time in my life, even though I am 78 years old, I realized I'm actually going to die.

How do we forget that truth about our existence? It is the universal reality of life, yet something most of us choose to ignore. We assume we will live forever. We expunge the possibility of death from our minds as if by denying its inevitability we can prevent its certainty. As Woody Allen said, we claim we're not afraid of death but "We just don't want to be there when it happens."

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Death ultimately awaits us, we just don't know when. And hearing it as a medical diagnosis makes its certainty unavoidable. That's why I'm now obsessed with the subject and had to speedily devour the Time article.

Subtitled "What I Learned From The Last Days Of My Mom And Dad,” Joe Klein, the famous political journalist and columnist, movingly wrote the story of his parents’ tragic descent into dementia and eventual death as he valiantly struggled with the difficult decisions of finding the ethical balance between fighting to prolong their lives and yet permitting them to die with dignity.

It is a tragic and heartrending story that has countless counterparts in contemporary society. Pulling the plug seems immoral, even for those not constrained by religious dictates. Yet how much effort must we expend to keep the terminally ill alive, even at the price of unbearable pain and suffering? Where do we draw the line between not doing anything to hasten death as opposed to merely prolonging the dying process? How do we reconcile the opposing demands of reverence for life and concern for the insufferable torment and anguish of a patient?

The preservation of life is indeed of paramount importance.

These are all issues that need to be fully explored. For religious Jews they are thankfully resolved by Halachah (Jewish Law) – the magnificent insights of Torah and Talmud as brought to bear on almost every conceivable situation. It is not for an article of this necessarily limited space to delineate anything more than basic parameters. The preservation of life is indeed of paramount importance. Quality and duration of life is irrelevant – to declare otherwise is to ascend the slippery slope of judging who has the right to live and of condemning those who don't comply with our necessarily biased standards to death.

Judaism rejects the notion of unlimited personal autonomy. As we daily recite in our prayers, "You preserve the soul within me and You will in the future take it from me.” Our bodies and our lives are not our own to do with as we will. They are temporary bailments given to us by God for a specific purpose and duration which only God can terminate. And just as we don't have the moral right to kill or harm others, we don't have the moral right to kill, maim, or injure ourselves or to authorize other persons to do those things to us. Severe pain, however, may at times – with the consultation of rabbinic authorities – legitimize refusal of treatment, provided that what is rejected is not in the category of basic needs for life such as air, food and drink.

The above list is hardly exhaustive. It is meant merely to reflect Jewish law’s concern for the preservation of both life and personal dignity, the commandment to treasure the gift of our years on earth as well as our eventual right to a peaceful passing to another world of eternal rest and reward.

But what speaks to me most about the issue of the terminally ill is the remarkable conclusion of my personal story.

I was told I was going to die. A quick Google search advised me that my condition usually allowed for six months survival after diagnosis. That happened almost two and a half years ago!

Today I continue, thank God, to feel perfectly fine. My team of doctors is still wondering how that happened. I tried to explain to them that I am on a medication that has proven successful for thousands of years, although it's healing properties haven't yet been scientifically identified. Having successfully prescribed it to others many times, I put myself on the "Recitation of Psalms" program. I asked friends and family to join because I have oft times witnessed the miracle of the power of prayer. And although I continue to be aware of the fact that some day I will die, I continue to go about my life's tasks of studying and teaching Torah, of lecturing and writing in the hope of bringing people closer to God and to Judaism – because I'm convinced that it is in the merit of mitzvahs that I can best hope for continued miracles.

My primary focus isn’t on “How to Die;” thank God it’s on how to live.

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