Ha’azinu – what might we say and write when we confront our own mortality?

Moses knows he is going to die.  Not in the way we all ‘know’ we are going to die, the coldly logical knowledge that doesn’t impact on our emotions in any way, but in the way that some people who are very close to death know with a certainty that no longer expresses itself as fear or self-pity but with a clarity and sense of purpose.

I have sat at many deathbeds. I have seen denial and also acceptance, whimpering pain and alert peacefulness, sudden startling requests – for toast, for touch, for people long gone, for non-existent sounds or lights to be turned off or up.  What I have learned is that we none of us know how we shall die, how our last days and hours will be, but that at many, if not most of the deathbeds I have observed where there is some time for the process to be worked through, there is an opportunity to express what is most important to the dying person, to project themselves one last time into the world.

It is human to want to survive. Life wants to continue despite pain or confusion or fear. Even when a person seems prepared and ready for death there is often a moment where there is a struggle to continue in this world. Even Hezekiah who famously “turned his face to the wall” having been told that he must set his house in order for he would die and not live, then prays to remind God that he has done God’s will with his whole heart, and weeps sorely.   His prayer (found in Isaiah 38) resonates today “In the noontide of my days I shall go to the gates of the nether world, I am deprived of the residue of my years…. O God, by these things we live, and altogether therein is the life of my spirit; so recover Thou me, and make me to live.”

It doesn’t matter at what age we come to death – we want more life, we want to go on in some meaningful way, we want to be part of the future.

We all know we will die. We share death with all who have ever lived and all who will ever be. We may fear the how or the when, but generally we get on with life as if death is not real. And we don’t plan for how we might continue to be a part of the future, for how our life may make a difference for our having lived it, or for how or what might be remembered of our existence.

Yet sometimes we are forced to confront our own mortality. And when that happens, these questions demand to be asked.

The whole period of the Days of Awe which are now coming to a close forces us to acknowledge our own transience in this world.  Be it the wearing of the kittel we shall don for the grave, the taking out of a whole day from time to focus on how we are living our lives in order to reset and readjust our behaviours, or the saying of yizkor prayers and visiting the graves of our families. Be it the autumnal edge we feel as we shiver in the sukkah, or the browning and falling of the leaves, or the daylight hours shortening perceptibly – we are viscerally aware of the darkness that is coming, the lessening outer energy alongside the power of the interior life.

Sometimes this knowledge that we will inevitably cease to be in this world brings out a search for meaning, for a sense of self that will transcend the physicality of our existence. Sometimes we become engrossed in our own personal wants and needs, sometimes we look further outwards towards our family and our relationships, sometimes we gaze further out towards our community or we look further in time to see what will be after we have gone.  I think often of the story of Moses in the yeshiva of Akiva (BT Menachot 29b), comforted by seeing that Rabbi Akiva is citing him as the source of the teaching being given, even though he does not understand anything of the  setting that is 1500 years after his own life.  It is a story of not being forgotten, of projecting values down the generations. Talmud also tells us that R. Yochanan said that when a teaching is transmitted with the name of its author, then the lips of that sage “move in the grave” (BT Sanhedrin 90b.  Rabbinic Judaism gives great honour to the idea that we live on in the teachings we offered, but also in the memories of those who choose to remember us. It is commonplace in the Jewish world to be named for a dead relative in order to honour their memory, to tell stories about them long after the hearers (or even the tellers) have a first-hand memory of the person, to fast on the day of their yahrzeit (anniversary of their death) as well as to light a 24 hour candle and to say the kaddish prayer.

So it is time for us to give serious thought about how we project ourselves into the future, what we pass on in terms of life lessons, the stories people will tell about us, how they will remember us, how they will carry on the values that we have cared about enough for them to see and for them to choose too.

All rabbis have stories of sitting with the dying as these desires clarify. One colleague has I think the ultimate cautionary tale of being asked to come out to a deathbed of a woman he barely knew, a long way out from where he lived, in terrible weather, and sent in the form of a demand. Deciding that he must go but unsure of what was wanted, he collected together a number of different prayer books to be able to offer her the spiritual succour she wanted. Her final wish was that her daughter in law would not inherit her fur coat. She was taking her feud past the grave.  I remember the woman who sat in bed in her hospice writing letters to everyone in her life, beautiful letters – but she refused to actually see any of the people she was writing to. I remember the people who made great efforts to right wrongs and those who tried to comfort the people left behind. I think with love of the woman who sent an audio file with her message that she had had a wonderful life with the right man and they were not to grieve, even though her death seemed unfairly early. I think of the woman who, having lost her fiancé in the war, proudly told me she was going back to her maker virgo intacta, and the woman who told me of her abortion while she was hiding in Nazi Germany, and her belief that the child had visited her alongside its father who died some years later.

Many a personal secret has been recounted at a deathbed, but often having been released from the power of that secret if there is time, the soul continues its journey in this world, and suddenly all sorts of things come into perspective. And it is these stories that I remember with such love and that have had such great impact on me.  The stories that people had hidden from their nearest and dearest but which explain so much of who they are and why they have done what they did. Their belief that they were not loved enough which led to them thinking they were not able to love as much as they wanted. Their umbilical connection to Judaism that they had not lived out publicly for fear of what might happen to them or their children should anti-Semitism return as virulently as they remembered in their youth.  Their subsequent horror that children and grandchildren were not connected to their Jewish roots, and their guilt at having weakened this chain. There are multiple examples but what I see again and again is the need for good relationships with others, for human connection with others , for expressing warmth and love and vulnerability, the need for living according to clear and thoughtful moral values, and for a sense of deep identity that passes from generation to generation and connects us to the other in time.

Moses in sidra Haazinu is just like any other human being, wanting his life not to be wasted but to be remembered, wanting his stories and his values to be evoked in order to pass on what is important to the generations that will come after him, however they may use them.  He needs to be present in their lives, albeit not in a physical way.  The whole of the book of Deuteronomy has been his way of reminding, of chivvying, of recalling and reimagining the history he has shared with the people of Israel. He uses both carrot and stick, he uses prose and poetry, he is both resigned and deeply angry, he is human.

There is a biblical tradition of the deathbed blessing, a blessing which describes not only what is but also what is aspirational.  Rooted in that has come the idea of the ethical will to pass on ideas, stories and thoughts to the next generation of one’s family, a tradition that has found a home also in reminiscence literature.  Sometimes we find out much more about the person who has died from their letters and diaries than they ever expressed  in life – and often we mourn that it is now too late to ask the questions that emerge from these, or to apologise or explain ourselves.

As the days grow shorter and we have spent time mulling over how we are living our lives and trying to match them to how we want our lives to have looked once we see them from the far end, we could take a leaf out of Moses’ life’s work in Deuteronomy and write our own life story, not just the facts but the stories around them, how we understood them, what we learned.  Next year we might write it differently, but what a rich choice lies in front of us, to explore what is really important to us and to ensure that it, like us, will live on.

Vayechi: our life is given to us so that we learn how to die

The narrative opens with the verse “And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt seventeen years; so the days of Jacob, the years of his life, were a hundred forty and seven years.

Immediately we are plunged into an end of life narrative but for the first time we have an extended view as we see Jacob begin to put his family affairs in order and to secure the succession, as a number of different conversations and scenes are recorded.

“And the time drew near that Israel must die; and he called his son Joseph, and said to him: ‘If now I have found favour in thy sight, put, I pray you, your hand under my thigh, and deal kindly and truly with me; bury me not, I pray you, in Egypt .But when I sleep with my fathers, you shall carry me out of Egypt, and bury me in their burying-place.’ And he said: ‘I will do as you have said.’ And he said: ‘Swear to me.’ And he swore to him.”

When Jacob’s father Isaac had died, the narrative was short and to the point. We are told that: “Jacob came to Isaac his father to Mamre, to Kiriat-arba–the same is Hebron–where Abraham and Isaac sojourned. And the days of Isaac were a hundred and fourscore years. And Isaac expired, and died, and was gathered unto his people, old and full of days; and Esau and Jacob his sons buried him. (Genesis 35: 27-29)

The ‘deathbed scene’ of passing on the special blessing with its accompanying promise of covenantal relationship with God had taken place many years earlier apparently, when his sons were much younger, and Isaac had seemed more concerned with getting a good meal than with the business of settling the family inheritance after his death. “And it came to pass, that when Isaac was old, and his eyes were dim, so that he could not see, he called Esau his elder son, and said to him: ‘My son’; and he said unto him: ‘Here am I.’ And he said: ‘Behold now, I am old, I know not the day of my death. Now therefore take thy weapons, thy quiver and thy bow, and go out to the field, and take me venison; and make me savoury food, such as I love, and bring it to me, that I may eat; that my soul may bless you before I die’ (Gen 27:1-4)

Isaac did not take the responsibility to ensure that things would transition smoothly after his death; he did not call both his sons to his bedside in order to deliver the blessing, but set up a complicated process that in retrospect looks almost wilfully negligent. The outcome was that the boys were set against each other, that Jacob fled and was away for at least fourteen years, and that the doubt as to his legitimacy as heir to his father’s blessing threads through the narrative as he battles angels and debates with God and we are left wondering what was Isaac’s intention in asking “who are you, my son?”

Isaac did not model himself on his own father who had many more children with Keturah after Sarah’s death, but about whom we are told “And Abraham gave all that he had to Isaac. But to the sons of the concubines that Abraham had, Abraham gave gifts; and he sent them away from Isaac his son while he yet lived, eastward, to the east country” (Gen 25:6 )Abraham protected Isaac from inheritance claims and also arranged his marriage into a powerful and protective family (Gen 24:1ff)

And now we have the deathbed arrangements of Jacob, and what a difference as he plans and calculates! First he speaks to Joseph, and he asks that he not be buried in Egypt but with his own father in the Cave of Machpela at Mamre. Then as he declines further, Joseph visits again with his own two sons, named for forgetting his past and for his successful life in Egypt. Jacob summons his strength to tell the story of the covenantal blessing, of the angel who had guarded him, of the death and burial of Joseph’s mother Rachel, adopts both the boys explicitly bringing them into the covenant blessing, and setting the younger (Ephraim) over the older (Manasseh). He gives Joseph what to all intents and purposes is his personal blessing, telling him that God will be with him and will bring him back to his ancestral land, and he offers something else that is outside of the covenant: “Moreover I have given to you one portion above your brothers, which I took out of the hand of the Amorite with my sword and with my bow.‘ (Gen:48:22)

And then finally he spoke to all the twelve sons together, twice telling them to assemble themselves together, and then offering individual blessings to each one. These are not the blessings of the covenant but clear assessments of their personalities and likely futures. Judah is singled out for praise and leadership, and Joseph is given what appears to be the major non-covenantal and personal blessing: “The blessings of your father are mighty beyond the blessings of my progenitors unto the utmost bound of the everlasting hills; they shall be on the head of Joseph, and on the crown of the head of the prince among his brethren.” And then he asks all his sons to make sure he will be buried in the ancestral graves in Machpela, and he too expires and, like Abraham and Isaac before him, he is “gathered to his people”.

It is an exemplary death. All the threads of his life are brought together – his funeral arrangements are made, and he asks ALL his children to take responsibility to take him to the burial site which will bring him – and them – back to his familial roots. He brings his two Egyptian grandchildren into the family fold, he resolves his relationship with Joseph in a number of ways not least taking the responsibility of being the parent rather than being a guest enjoying his son’s hospitality and giving his personal gift separately from the family inheritance. He brings all his sons together so that none have more information than the others, and he is absolutely clear about them and their fortunes in an open and formal setting of deathbed blessing. And having finished his speech he gets comfortably into the bed and he dies.

Many years later we are told a similar story – the death of Rabbi Judah haNasi whom we know to have been in terrible pain and discomfort in his terminal state, but whose process of dying also encompasses the resolving of the important issues of his life. In the Babylonian Talmud we read “At the time of Rabbi’s death he said: I need my sons. His sons came to him and he told them “carefully observe the honour due to your mother……He said to them “I need the sages of Israel. The sages of Israel came to him and he said to them” Do not eulogise me in the towns. But establish a session after thirty days. Simon my son shall be Hacham, Gamliel my son shall be Nasi. Hanina bar Hama shall sit at the head of the Academy.  He said to them “I need my younger son” R. Simon came to him; He transmitted to him the tradition of wisdom. He said to them I need my older son. Rabban Gamliel came to him and he transmitted to him the orders of the patriarchate. ( Ketubot 103a-b)

Rabbi’s death was less peaceful than that of Jacob, indeed it took the intervention of a compassionate maid servant to help ease him from this world when she saw just how much pain he was in, but his thoughtful planning and the passing on of the legacy of his learning and leadership owe much to the story in Genesis. Only when Jacob completes the resolution of the family tensions at his deathbed, rather than hide from the challenge as his own father had done, does the story of lethal sibling rivalry that began with the very first brothers Cain and Abel and was demonstrated down the generations of the Book of Genesis, end. Judah HaNasi faced a similar problem – there was no clear successor of sufficient stature, so he gave to both his sons as well as to R.Hanina bar Hama a role and a title to go forward with. We know that the decentralisation of the rabbinic world began at this time, along with a flowering of other academies – -the new Academy and Patriarchate at Tiberius came to supersede the one at Sepphoris over time. But Judah haNasi did his best to prevent the splintering of authority and both his life and his death contributed to a smoother shift than might otherwise have been.

Most of us will not be leaving anything so valuable an inheritance as these figures, but we will all be leaving other important gifts and it is essential that we learn the lessons of dying well from wherever we can.

The lessons in our texts are a good place to start. To confront the reality that we will die, even if we don’t know when, so that we can plan and work in order to leave behind good relationships rather than complicated or destructive feelings.

The model to avoid is that of Isaac who surprisingly thought more about fulfilling his own immediate needs than smoothing the path for the future. Jacob the trickster cast aside his deceptiveness and spoke to each son individually in the presence of the others. Rabbi spoke with both the Sages of the Academy and then to each of his sons in order to prevent unseemly battles over leadership.

We none of us know the day of our death, but we can most certainly try to live our lives in such a way that we do not leave too much of a relationship mess behind us. If we truly lived as if we might die tomorrow we might say and do the things we should say and do now, and not say or do the things we imagine we can always sort out some time in the future while we focus on our own needs.

If we try to put things right each day, as if it is our last day and this our deathbed process, then we might leave less emotional mess behind. If we tell those we love that we love them, forgive those who hurt us, let people know our wishes -be it organ donation or special bequests; if we give back what we owe and plan for the future so that we do not leave others in the lurch, then we can leave the rest up to God and to the future that we can hope will take care of itself.

Chayei Sarah: confronting the reality of death, make preparations, do the work

death pic

Confronting the reality of death is always hard, and for Abraham this is no exception. The text that begins with the phrase “the life of Sarah was one hundred and twenty and seven years, these were the years of the life of Sarah, and Sarah died…” is the introduction to a protracted negotiation for her burial place.

In the twenty verses of the narrative, only three touch on Abraham’s emotional state “Abraham came to mourn for Sarah, and to weep for her. And Abraham rose up from before his dead, and spoke unto the children of Heth, saying: I am a stranger and a sojourner with you: give me a possession of a burying-place with you, that I may bury my dead out of my sight.’ In the story as first presented we see that he seems to quickly move from mourning and weeping to making the practical arrangements so that the body of his wife can be buried and removed from before him.

Sarah’s is the first documented burial in bible – up until now the narrative has dispassionately informed us of the death of individuals without much more detail. Yet clearly this burial he is arranging is not an unknown rite. The children of Heth recognise his need and open the negotiations with the offer that he may take his choice from their sepulchres, telling him that no one would withhold their own plot from him should he want to use it. So clearly there was already a well- established proactive structure in place of prepared graves by the time Sarah died, not surprising given the need to quickly dispose of the bodies of the dead. Yet our foundational family did not seem to have made this provision. Was it because as an immigrant family they had not got a sense of ‘owning’ the land they had come to? Or because they had not quite struck roots in the land of Canaan and were still travelling? It is odd that Sarah died in Hebron when Abraham was clearly in Be’er sheva. Were they living separately? The midrash tells of Sarah’s death being caused by her horror that her husband would be prepared to sacrifice their son so had she left Abraham in order to strike out alone? Was any previous plan to have a grave left behind in the tangle of confusion that this relationship trauma had caused, and Sarah’s new place of abode forced Abraham into making new arrangements?

It does seem odd that they had not made plans for their deaths. They were a long way from the graves of their ancestors, (and indeed Terach the father of Abraham had also died in Haran away from his homeland of Ur Chasdim) so they would have had to innovate in their new lives in the new country. Were they hoping for some guidance in the moment? Were they wondering if they would be staying in the land or moving onwards again? What was behind the need for Abraham to have to negotiate for a family plot while in the grief of immediate bereavement? If as a Jewish community we have learned one thing, we have learned of the importance of community support in times of death and bereavement. The chevra kadisha (holy fellowship) which is appointed by every Jewish community to care for the dead, goes back at least to the time of Rabbi Hamnuna (3rd Century CE). The Talmud (Mo’ed Katan 27b) tells us This also said Rav Judah as reporting Rav: When a person dies in town, all the townspeople are forbidden from doing work. R. Hamnuna once came to Daru-matha, he heard the sound of the funerary-bugle [and] seeing some people carrying on their work, he said: Let the people be under the shammetha [ban]! Is there not a person dead in town? They told him that there was an Association (chevra kadisha) in the town. If so, said he to them, it is allowed you [to work].”

It provides a fascinating insight into the way the whole community was responsible for taking these practical arrangements from the mourners, and for arranging the dignified care and disposal of the body of the dead. This mitzvah took over from the need to work for everyone in town. There was a notifying sound when someone had died so that everyone would know of the death, and clearly in some places that R.Hamnuna knew, this sound was the prompt to everyone to down tools and go to help. Yet in Daru-matha they were even more organised, having deputed the responsibility to a group of skilled volunteers, much as we do to this day.

This leaves time for the mourner to use more than the 15 percent of time that Abraham was able to give in the narrative, to their grief. They can focus entirely on their loss, on the person they loved, on evaluating and processing and making sense of what has happened. And here Abraham has something very powerful to teach us.

We are told וַיָּבֹא֙ אַבְרָהָ֔ם לִסְפֹּ֥ד לְשָׂרָ֖ה וְלִבְכֹּתָֽהּ:

Abraham came ‘lispod´ for Sarah and livkotah’

Lispod is the word we use for giving the hesped – for speaking of the dead and telling the story of their life, from where they had come and how the journey had been, assessing and evaluating the real life that was lived, rather than eulogising or praising the person- at least not paying fulsome tribute unrealistically or without the fuller context of the way they lived their life. ‘Hesped’ means to cause to cry – in other words to really understand who we have lost and so to really feel the cost and pain of the death. Only after Abraham has done this, comprehended the full meaning of the life of Sarah, and thus the full extent of his loss, does he cry/mourn.

Sometimes when people die we like only to say good things about them – even unrealistic and unbelievable good things, instead of focussing on who they were, on why they had the damage or the pain or the anger they carried, on how they did or did not deal with the hurts and disappointments every life brings. There is a tendency to quote another midrashic gloss taken from the names of three sidrot in the book of Leviticus – “Acharei Mot Kedoshim Emor – After death speak holiness”. And this is a good maxim, but it is not the way of true mourning if we think the holiness /kedoshim means to tell ‘white lies’ or gloss over the reality of the complexity of every lived life.

To truly speak holiness of the dead is to recognise them in their full humanity. To see the flaws as well as the wonders, the spectrum of attributes they held and the way they allowed themselves to be. We need to see the fights they fought, the pain they felt, the love they gave, the achievements they realised, the relationships they worked on, the memories they embodied, the losses and the gains. Whatever the story behind the separation of Sarah and Abraham at her death and the lack of dignified burial space planned for earlier, Abraham teaches us something very powerful. See the person who died, give them their full rights as full human beings who lived fully human lives, and only then cry for yourself and for the loss of them. Confront the reality of them and their deaths, and go on to live your life in the light of that understanding.hevra kadisha(images from Czech republic: Hevra Kadisha building in Prague)

Parashat Emor: the importance of knowing our boundaries.

And the Eternal said to Moses: Speak to the priests the sons of Aaron, and say to them: None shall defile himself for the dead among his people”(Leviticus 21:1)

Judaism likes the idea of boundaries and separations, of creating different categories in order for the world to work properly. From the moment the Torah narrative begins with the chaos of primeval creation, God first creates the earth and the heavens and then begins to separate everything out – light from darkness, dry land from the sea, the firmaments from the earth, day from night.   The psalmist tells us that God gave the earth to people to live on, while the heavens belong to God. They are different and separate domains.

Biblically the Jewish people were divided into the Levitical priesthood (descendants of the tribe of Levi) and the rest of the Israelites; and the Levitical priesthood itself was divided into the Cohanim (the priests who were direct descendants of Aaron), and the Levi’im – the priests whose work was to service the Cohanim in their duties. Different and separate domains.

Creating categories and boundaries is what we do. We filter and we sort, we include and exclude, we oblige and prohibit.

In the case of the priesthood there are rules which separate them from the rest of the Jewish people. So, for example, even today someone whose family tradition is that they are Kohen will avoid going too close to a dead body – Jewish cemeteries will have rooms and paths to allow the Kohanim to approach in an halachically acceptable way. Whatever we Reform Jews may think about the division amongst the Jewish people which still puts an extra load on the families of the Levitical priesthood, (the Reform response takes into account both the reality that whatever you may believe about your family the hereditary priesthood cannot be a status you can be certain about; and also has moved away from laws specifically to enable Temple ritual, so given that there are substantial disabilities in Jewish law for people identified as Cohanim, we have decided that this category is no longer of importance to us and have effectively removed this particular boundary), we are aware of its ramifications.

 Why must a priest not come into contact with a dead body? It may be a matter of chukkat ha’goy, of copying and assimilating the traditions of the people with whom we live until we are indistinguishable from them, blurring the boundaries of our identity. Egypt we know had a cult of death, with huge tombs and sarcophagi in which the embalmed bodies of the dead were prepared for the afterlife. The rich would stay rich; the poor would stay poor even after death. Torah most certainly is reacting to some of this cult as it reacts to many of the practices of the people amongst whom the Israelites were living. Our whole imperative rejects the cult of death for the cult of life and living, with Moses reminding us in parashat Nitzavim to “Choose Life”.

It may be that the ritual impurity is less to do with the problem of being in a fit state to offer a Temple sacrifice as keeping in a fit state a very important boundary. The separation boundary between life and death is the most powerful that we experience and it must be kept as tight and impermeable as possible. The verse that ended last week’s portion Kedoshim, (Lev 20:27) reminds us “a man or a woman that divines by a ghost or a familiar spirit shall surely be put to death… their blood shall be upon them”

We must keep our focus on this life, in this world. We must pay attention to how we live here and now, rather than make assumptions about, or even try to make forays into, whatever exists outside of our own domain.

Parashat Emor reminds us of the importance of operating within our own world, and within our own time. It contains the laws around sanctifying time – the festivals are given within this sidra, Shabbat, Pesach, Shavuot, Sukkot, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. All of these not only set aside time for particular worship, they also remind us of the boundaries of nature, the limits of our behaviour, the importance of stopping the everyday and mundane and remembering the reason for our being.

We are known as an Am Kadosh – often translated as a holy people. But Kedushah is not about holiness in the sense that we are specially sacred and righteous and blessed. We are an Am Kadosh because we follow the rules of Kedushah – of separating out and making (and keeping) boundaries. The root of the word k’d’sh means to make different or separate – hence when we marry (Kiddushin) we make that relationship a different one, we separate our partner for a unique relationship. When we think about our dietary habits, eat certain foods and not eat others, separate milk and meat products and so on, we are forcing ourselves to think about what we consume, rather than mindlessly devouring anything presented to us. When we give a proportion of our income to help others as a matter of principle rather than viewing all our income as being rightfully only to be spent on ourselves; When we choose not to automatically adopt the customs of the surrounding culture but to think about our own identity and absorb the best of what we see around us BECAUSE it is the best of what we see; When we keep in place these boundaries we may find we are able to negotiate the world with more clarity. I am not suggesting that we pull down the defences in order to protect any notional purity or to keep out the modern world, but that knowing who we are and in what area we should focus our energies will give us a greater chance in partnering with God in the work of completing the creation.

Parashat Emor reminds us of the importance of knowing our boundaries. It reminds us that to be Kedoshim – the imperative of last week’s sidra – we have to clarify our context and so to understand it and be able to work within it.

Vayechi: Chesed ve’Emet, Acknowledging truth allows us to offer our compassion fully.

וַיִּקְרְב֣וּ יְמֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֘ לָמוּת֒ וַיִּקְרָ֣א ׀ לִבְנ֣וֹ לְיוֹסֵ֗ף וַיֹּ֤אמֶר לוֹ֙ אִם־נָ֨א מָצָ֤אתִי חֵן֙ בְּעֵינֶ֔יךָ שִׂים־נָ֥א יָֽדְךָ֖ תַּ֣חַת יְרֵכִ֑י וְעָשִׂ֤יתָ עִמָּדִי֙ חֶ֣סֶד וֶֽאֱמֶ֔ת אַל־נָ֥א תִקְבְּרֵ֖נִי בְּמִצְרָֽיִם:

And the days of Israel came close to death and he called to his son, to Joseph, and he said to him “If pray I found favour in your eyes, pray put your hand under my thigh, and treat with me with Chesed and Emet; do not, I pray, bury me in Egypt” (Exodus 47:29)

Chesed and Emet – two of the thirteen middot, the attributes of God explained by God to Moses, after the incident of the Golden calf, and which continue to be used liturgically in the same way that Moses used them then– to ask for divine mercy when there is no legal basis or reason for it.

Essentially, used as the centre of the selichot prayers of the Days of Awe, these words, taken from Exodus 34 (vv6-7) remind God of our individual and group relationship with the divine, and that sometimes it is only the mercy of God that allows that relationship to continue. They set the scene for teshuvah, for repentance or rather for a return to God after we have strayed.

Of the thirteen middot derived from this text, all but one refer to mercy, kindness, favour or forgiveness –the second of our pair here in Vayechi, when Joseph asks Jacob, Ve’asiti imadi Chesed ve’Emet.

The word Emet means truth or faithfulness. Its presence in the request is a problem for classical commentators on this text, and is beautifully glossed by Rashi who quotes the midrash (Gen. Rabbah 96:5) which uses the context of the proper burial of the dead by understanding Jacob to be saying to his son “The chesed/loving-kindness that is done for the dead is here a true loving-kindness, entirely altruistic, since one cannot expect payment or reward of any kind from the dead for caring for them”. And from this reading grows the mitzvah of Chesed SHEL Emet – truthful kindness or perfect kindness, the entirely altruistic mitzvah of helping those who are powerless and completely vulnerable and who will never be able to recompense or return the favour – the unburied dead.

It is a beautiful platform on which to stand this most selfless and necessary of activities, yet I find myself not entirely satisfied either with the midrashic gloss of Rashi or with the usual interpretation that “chesed ve’emet” in this context is simply an idiomatic phrasing of doing a favour or a good deed. It seems to me that the two words mean very different things, and placing them together (as happens fairly often in the bible) creates a new thing, a tension between loving kindness and truth/faithfulness with which we must engage.

As well as being in the verses which give us the attributes of God, the combination of words comes to describe God and God’s work, for example in psalms such as

“All the ways of God are Chesed and Emet to those who keep his covenant and his testimony” (25:10)  כָּל־אָרְח֣וֹת יְ֭הֹוָה חֶ֣סֶד וֶאֱמֶ֑ת לְנֹצְרֵ֥י בְ֝רִית֗וֹ וְעֵדֹתָֽיו:

Or “Righteousness and truth are the foundation of Your throne, Chesed and Emet go out from before You”        (89:15)    צֶ֣דֶק וּ֭מִשְׁפָּט מְכ֣וֹן כִּסְאֶ֑ךָ חֶ֥סֶד וֶ֝אֱמֶ֗ת יְֽקַדְּמ֥וּ פָנֶֽיךָ

Chesed and Emet come together in God, and are a fundamental part of the Covenant relationship we have with God – this is clear from the texts. So it is a very easy stretch when reading those same texts to understand that we expect Chesed/loving-kindness from God EVEN THOUGH the truth of our being is not always deserving – hence the use of the middot in the selichot prayers of pardon throughout the Days of Awe.

But the real lesson in the deathbed conversation between Jacob and Joseph is not that we expect unconditional love and forgiveness from God, but rather that we have to mediate the one with the other for ourselves, that however we might perceive the truth of our relationship with someone else, when the chips are down, then Chesed also has to be in the equation. Indeed sometimes compassion has to override the truth of someone’s behaviour.

What Jacob is asking of Joseph is not couched in the patriarchal power language – “you are my son and must follow my wishes”. It is phrased very much as a favour – “if I have found favour in your sight….” But then he adds to the request: “deal with me with both Emet and Chesed”.

It may be that Jacob know that he cannot order this son of his who has become so powerful in Egypt, and who may have his own political reasons to decide on the funeral planning for his father. It may be that Jacob knows that he may not even be successful when he appeals to Joseph’s magnanimity with his request formed in such conciliatory words as the formulaic “if I have found favour in your sight”.  He does this but then he goes on to nuance his words with the appeal to both Chesed and Emet. It seems to me that Jacob is asking of his son something quite new in human interaction at this point – he is acknowledging that the Emet, the truth of their relationship is that has been strained for many years, that he has not parented Joseph well, that he has little claim on his son for his request, and yet he is asking for the compassion of Chesed. He is saying to his son –“ I know who I am to you, and you know that I know this, but my request is so important to me that I am asking you to see past this truth we both acknowledge and help me.”

The honesty with which Jacob is speaking here to his son is the Emet he is asking for from his son. He does not want their story to be airbrushed or hidden from their interaction, but to be part of the decision making process that Joseph will go through. He does not want the failures in their relationship to be buried and treated as if they never existed. With the words “ve’emet” he is telling his son that the unfinished business of their relationship was real, that the pain felt by Joseph was real too, and he is asking Joseph to honour his wishes despite this pain, through the power of his compassion for his father. Essentially with the combination of Chesed ve Emet Jacob asks of his son not only great compassion, but great compassion in the light of the knowledge of the painful truth.

The lesson is well taught. Joseph honour his father’s wishes and the sibling rivalry ends here with the death of Jacob. The pain is recorded, and it does not go away or be hidden from view but neither does it sprawl out into the next generation. Once faced with integrity and acknowledged by the person who is perceived to have caused the pain, it can be overcome and compassion allowed to take its place. Psalm 89 tells us that the world is built with Chesed (v3) – it is the tool of creation, a new possibility.

כִּֽי־אָמַ֗רְתִּי ע֭וֹלָם חֶ֣סֶד יִבָּנֶ֑ה

And Jacob is asking for this too – once the truth is acknowledged a new possibility emerges and compassion has its place. The importance of the mitzvah of Chesed shel Emet, of the altruistic treatment of the dead who cannot repay us for what we do for them is great. But the importance of treating others with Chesed ve’emet is equally great, for only then do we truly let go of what is holding us back from our potential and our future.

The Angel of Death and the Limits of Autonomy

angel_deathI sit as a rabbi at the bedsides of the dying. I see the many and varied ways that the dying person, their friends and family, carers and clinicians, cope – or do not cope, with what is happening. I see the fear of pain and the fear of loss. I see ‘good deaths’ and terrible deaths. My own anxiety resonates within me as I walk a few steps of the journey with each person. My most searing rabbinic memory is of an elderly man dying from unstoppable necrosis of the internal organs, curled like a foetus in his hospital bed and whimpering his pain to himself, already far from any awareness of anyone or anything. Such intractable pain witnessed years ago still terrifies me. The pain on the bed and the pain on the face of his soon to be widow, howling in animal agony as she witnessed her husband.

I have seen such deaths and I understand the desire for people not to have to suffer them. I share the desire wholeheartedly, but it does not lead me to believe that legislating in order to assist suicide is a good thing either for society or for the future of many individuals. I fear such legislation even more than I fear such a death for myself, for it will change the narrative and the norms by which human life is seen and valued, and I do not want my children’s children to live in a world where the value of human lives can be quantified, where an expectation may flourish that death is better than continued living, where choosing to die is normalised and accepted as an equal choice with choosing to live.

This, for me, is a case where something may indeed be right for an individual, but where it can never be right for a society. There are some areas of life that will forever have to remain ‘messy’ because to try to clarify them through scaling up to a societal norm what is understandable at the individual level does not work. Life may become such a burden that for an individual it is no longer worth living – but to take this idea to its logical conclusion for society would mean that we would be forced to quantify the value of every life, something so subjective it would be impossible for us to agree on.

Why does our religious tradition, not unaware of or unsympathetic to the problems of overwhelming physical and emotional pain, still refuse to make space within its law codes, its liturgy or its narratives to condone the taking of one’s own life, and why does it explicitly forbid the helping of someone to do so saying “There is no difference between a person who kills either a healthy person or one who is ill and dying, or even a gosses. In all of these cases, the murderer is put to death” (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Murder).

It does so I believe, not because it wants to put people into a position of suffering – indeed it recognises that there are times when the suffering is so great people will indeed act upon it – but because once one deviates from the societal agreement that all human life has absolute and infinite value the door is opened to the possibility of diminishing and relatavising its value. By permitting such an act in its legal codes, it will change the way human life is seen and understood and forever alter the view of the absolute and infinite value of human life. Tradition understands that what is tolerable for individuals to choose does not become tolerable for society to choose. Once it becomes acceptable to measure life in terms of its quality – either subjective or objectively understood, we have laid the groundwork for viewing the value of some life as relatively less than that of others, and opened the door for a diminishment and undervaluing of some human lives.

From this a number of deeply problematic scenarios follow. If quality of life becomes the benchmark by which choosing to die becomes an option, how would one consistently measure it? If by subjective decision making, how easy would it become to opt for death now rather than the more difficult and uncertain continued living? How would depression be measured or ruled out? Or a belief that to choose death will lighten the load either now or in the future, upon the living? Would fear of future pain or incapacity, which may or may not be certain, be allowed to trigger the decision for death, as the anxiety clouds the current quality of life? How and over what length of time would analysis of the capability of the requester be assessed, and against what criteria? Scholars agree that this is always a social rather than a scientifically based process, so no truly objective capability test can be formed. “Capacity assessment” may be the “Trojan Horse” of assisted dying legislation, in that it is meant to provide protection but instead provides cover for dangerous possibilities to enter normal societal discourse.        

As well as the problem of not being amenable to scaling up from the individual to society, the question of assisted dying is a classic dilemma involving two competing ‘goods’:- For people to be able to die without suffering or pain; And for society to protect the vulnerable and not relativise the value of human life. It is not something that is amenable to resolution through legislation, however thoughtfully drafted. In Talmudic terms it is a “Teyku” a situation where the moral arguments on each side balance each other, standing indefinitely in a state of insolubility. 319 times in the Babylonian Talmud the Rabbis are forced to say “Teyku – Let it stand”, when they come across a situation which is not resolvable. There are limits to the application of reason in resolving moral quandaries. In practise one lets the situation stand and each person has to act for themselves while limiting the violations to the other ‘goods’.

Clearly there are intellectual and philosophical arguments on both sides of the debate. Possibly more powerfully there are emotional arguments, such as that we would not allow an animal to suffer what some human beings may experience towards the end of life, or the stories of ‘deathbed’ reconciliation or resolution of entrenched feelings. We are all influenced by our own experiences of seeing someone we love die, or of seeing someone not die, which can indeed be worse. There can be no clear cut and objective line of argument that will lead us to an obvious and shared conclusion. We are talking here about life and death, about the primal emotions that are barely touched by language, so deep are they embedded within us. As Niels Bohr wrote, “There are trivial truths and there are great truths. The opposite of a trivial truth is plainly false. The opposite of a great truth is also true”

Let us look more closely at the two great truths that all people should be able to die well, and that human life is of infinite value. Both truths desire the dignity of the individual, both are driven from compassion. The difference lies in their view of the primacy of autonomy.

Autonomy offers absolute sovereignty over self, the power to decide; independence of mind and body is seductive and influential on our thinking. “Of course I want to make decisions about myself and my life, and of course I should take this power for myself” we think, “and I must have the right to do so in every circumstance”. And this is what leads us to the other side of the dilemma.

Independence is a political construct rather than a social one. In both the natural and the social world there is no true independence, there is only interdependence. We can have no complete autonomy, our choices have impact beyond our selves and are shaped by the society in which we live. Our autonomy is limited by our own bodies, by rules of law or convention, by our schools or places of work, our families our communities and our traditions. It is limited by the need for a greater ‘good’ –that which is best for our group

We live at a time when it has become an expectation that we can control all aspects of our lives. We have elevated this expectation to the status of right. And yet sometimes we do not have the control, sometimes we find ourselves lost in a place where random illness strikes or where the power is firmly in someone else’s hands, or where what we feel is right for ourselves is in tension with what we know to be right for our community or family. Sometimes we may desperately want something we cannot have. Sometimes we pray and the answer is that God says ‘no’.

                 Jewish tradition has a great deal to say to us about the process of dying and it is intriguingly complex. It struggles with what may be right for one person, yet toxic for society. Hence its response to suicide, whereby the hard line of the texts against the individual who takes their own life is mitigated to the point where the explicit disapproval can be almost entirely overcome in the practical response in the event of suicide.

 The ethical problems of balancing two ‘goods’ – how to treat with dignity and respect the person who takes their own life while at the same time neither approving nor promoting such behaviour in order to preserve the well being of the community is apparent from early texts, showing how conflicted our tradition has been always. While there are a good sprinkling of texts which are sympathetic to the people for whom life has become burdensome, there is absolutely no leeway for legislative support – the whole thrust of halachic literature is to reinforce the absolute sanctity of life, the giving and taking of which is in the hands of God alone. There is no explicit prohibition against suicide in Bible, but Talmud works hard to source such a proscription in Torah, using a number of different verses to do so. The most usual quoted is from the Noachide laws (Genesis 9:5) where God says “And surely your blood of your lives will I require”, but the ban against destruction from Deuteronomy “Do not destroy” (Deut 20:19) is also brought to bear, with the Gemara stating that if this applies to artefacts, then how much more so should it apply to one’s own body? (Baba Kamma 91b).

Yet while attempting to give strength to this proscription against suicide, the Gemara notes that “It must therefore be said that Tannaim differed on this point, for there is one view maintaining that a man may not injure himself and there is another maintaining that a man may injure himself”. (ibid)

It is interesting to me how important Tradition’s need for a teaching against suicide is, while at the same time there is demonstrable understanding that sometimes life just becomes too much for individuals, and ending it becomes an option to be considered seriously. So for example we have the story of the Hittite City of Luz where “even the Angel of Death has no permission to pass through it, but when the old men there become tired of life (lit. ‘Their mind becomes loathsome to them’) they go outside the wall and then die” (Sotah 46b), and the principle of “lev yodea marat nafsho” (the heart knows the bitterness of the soul) (Prov. 14:10) suggests that subjective feelings having weight in medical decision making is brought into the debate in Yoma 83a.

Despite the compassion towards the [would-be] suicide as individual being, the full weight of Jewish tradition teaches that life is sacred, it is given to us by God, the soul belongs to God and death comes at the will of God alone. Deuteronomy teaches “I cause death and I cause life” (32:39). Hannah prays “Adonai brings death and makes life” (1 Sam 2:6), Job tells us that God gave life and God took life, and God’s name is blessed (1:21), Kohelet tells us that there is “a time to give birth and a time to die” (3:1-2) and just as the process of birthing is out of our control, so too is that of dying. We are made in the image of God, and life is our most precious attribute, something of absolute value that should never be dismissed. The mitzvah of preserving life, Pikuach Nefesh, is so important that fulfilling it supersedes all but three of the mitzvot in Torah.

The Mishnah tells us “Without our consent we are born, and without our consent we live, and without our consent we die, and without our consent we will have to give a reckoning before …the blessed Holy One”. (Pirkei Avot 4:29). Jewish law concerning the dying (gosses) acts every time upon the assumption that life should be cared for, even though it is clear that it will shortly end. Every morning as soon as we awake, we are supposed to pray the words “Adonai, neshama she’natata bi tehorah..” God, you gave me a pure soul. You created it, you formed it, and you made it live within me. But one day you will take it from me to Eternal life”, a prayer that recognises the transience of both life and of death, and the control of God over them both.

Proponents of the right to be assisted in suicide rely on the idea of well framed legislation that would prevent a slippery slope where life would in future be seen as burdensome for reasons that we currently would find problematic. Mention of eugenics, of ending the life of a person with dementia, of pressurising vulnerable people whose care will cost a family or the State a substantial amount of money to choose to die, or of allowing people with mental fragility to choose death over life – all these can be prevented by good drafting of the Bill, they say. But it seems to me that is to place faith in a fragile and inadequately future-proofable instrument. However carefully drafted a Bill may be, there is no guarantee against violation or infringement, and meanwhile the mores of society will drift further away from the valuing of life qua life, into establishing and measuring and challenging the boundaries of what is an acceptable quality of a life, what a reasonable ground for choosing to die. And anyway Law is used to decide between right and wrong, never to be able to choose between two ‘goods’, it is neither designed to do this nor could it possibly be effective.

Once one crosses the Rubicon and accepts the right of the individual to have autonomy over choosing to live or die, the notion of being able to do so only in strictly bounded conditions is open for change. Indeed it is changing already with the owner of the Dignitas Clinic already suggesting that clinical depression is an acceptable reason for choosing death, and the Dutch Supreme Court ruling that “euthanasia or assisted suicide might be justifiable for a patient with severe psychic suffering due to a depressive illness and in the absence of a physical disorder or a terminal condition.” Supreme Court of the Netherlands. Arrest-Chabot, HR 21 June 1994, nr 96 972. Nederlands Juristen Blad 1994;26:893-5.

Once we allow the idea that autonomy over our lives to the point of choosing our deaths is an acceptable societal norm, that human life is not of infinite value and can in some cases be ended through a legally sanctioned process, then there is nothing to prevent a recalibrating of that value in future years. Once we are prepared to attribute a view of quality and to quantify this, then the subjective view of the clinically depressed at one moment in time may trigger an irrevocable decision. No amount of legislative safeguards will completely protect the vulnerable.

Studies have shown that people who want this legislation mainly want it for reassurance, to know that future extreme physical pain can be escaped, and proponents of this kind of legislation quote the relatively small number of people who go on to commit suicide with the help of their physician – about 50 percent of those who receive the prescriptions actually go on to ingest the drug. But this is not about numbers, and reassurance can be provided in other ways.

Consistent studies reveal that the real issues for patients are not so much the fear of physical pain, but the psychological and emotional distress that may accompany it. Patients surveyed usually speak of the fear of loss of autonomy and control, of living with hopelessness and depression. A Dutch research project in 2005 showed that depressed cancer patients were four times more likely to request euthanasia or physician assisted suicide. Another study in New York replicated this figure and adds “Among patients who were neither depressed nor hopeless, none had high desire for hastened death”.

The texts of our tradition understand the fear of extreme pain, of psychological pain, and of the burden that life can become. There is no strand of tradition or classical text that aggrandises pain or suggests that we seek suffering, there is no sanctity to be found in agony, and our sources permit the use of every medical means to avoid pain (Shulchan Aruch YD 241:13). They are compassionate and forgiving of any action which a person may do arising out of excessive pain. But they hold a line about incorporating into law or into society the idea that any such action is le’hatchila acceptable or predicated on a value system we can endorse. I think they understood that there is no place of safety once life stops being seen as infinitely valuable, that we might think we can legislate impregnable safeguards but that when we change the basis on which we see human life there is no way ultimately to protect the most vulnerable people in society.

We are faced in society with a pressure towards absolute autonomy, bolstered by a belief that we can really control all aspects of our lives, that there is no thing we cannot do and no decision we cannot make for ourselves. But the reality is that we live in community, and what may be desirable for an individual may not be desirable for the society within which that individual exists. There are problems both of scale and of tension between the ‘good’ of the individual and the ‘good’ of society. The reality is also that absolute control over our destinies is not in fact ours; sometimes we simply cannot have what we want.

Our spiritual tradition helps us with the areas of our lives in which we feel less able, not in order to make us more able necessarily, but to be able to live with what is not possible as much as with what is. The need for reassurance that there will be no pain towards the end of life is mainly in the hands of the medical profession, and I fear for the future of palliative care should more people opt to avoid it by leaving their lives before it becomes necessary. But it is also in the hands of us all – if we journey alongside the dying, offer warmth and care, see the humanity of the person and who they are; If we recognise the totality of the life they have lived, if we maintain their dignity and self worth, address their fears and sadnesses, then we offer a way to deal with the reality that we cannot exert control over every aspect of life. In the words of Rabbah in the Talmud responding to distress of Honi HaMa’agel “either companionship or death” (Ta’anit 3a)

 first published in “Assisted Dying – Rabbinic Responses” ed Romain 2014

Taf Nun Tzaddi Beit Hey : May the soul of our dear one be bound up in the bundle of life. Thoughts for Kristallnacht 2013

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ImageIn an enormous, overgrown, forested cemetery in Breslau, lies the grave of a woman who died in that town in the Jewish Hospital in 1940. She had come, as far as we can ascertain, to be near her sister whose husband had roots there. Her parents were dead, her brother moved to another part of the country to be near a different border, all three siblings dislocated from their family and home and all three would die far from the comfort and security they were born to.

Lily’s sister and brother in law fled separately to freedom a few weeks before she herself died in March 1940.  The Jews were deported from Breslau in September 1941 and by 1943 only partners of mixed marriages and some children remained of a community that had numbered 20 thousand in 1933, Almost all those deported perished in the Shoah that began 75 years ago this week, with the infamous Kristallnacht pogroms of November 1938.

Trude, the sister of Lily, escaped to safety in the USA, knowing that her sister was too weak and ill to live much longer, certainly too ill to journey. I can only imagine the last days they were together, the agony of leaving behind a dying sister while knowing that to stay would only mean that both of them would die; and the pain of the woman left in a city she did not know, with relative strangers who nursed her to the end, and who buried her with dignity, marking the plinth of her grave so that one day someone might come back to honour her properly. The grave is at the end of an older line, on a pathway, presumably the easiest place to dig in the bitter winter time for a struggling community. And recently we, her great nephew and neices found it, commissioned a memorial stone, and dedicated it on a cool autumn morning.

The stone reminds the world that here lies Anne Elisabeth Rothschild, Lily’s real name. It gives the dates and places of her birth and death, and the names of her brother and sister. And there follows the acronym found on many Jewish graves:        “ taf nun. tsadi, beit, heh.” (for tehi nishmato/a tzruro/a bitzrur ha’chaim – may their soul be bound in the bundle of life)

The acronym has found its way onto Jewish memorial stones almost  it seems to me as a response to the Christian Requiescat In Pace (Rest in Peace) taken from the liturgy of the Catholic Requiem Mass.

The acronym we have comes to our funeral liturgy through the memorial prayer “El Malei Rachamim”, a prayer which was composed in the Ashkenazi Jewish Rite following the time of the Crusades This prayer was written for the many martyrs who died simply because they were Jews, and is referred to specifically as being recited for the souls of those who were murdered in the Chmielnicki revolts of the 17th Century. We read it as a memorial prayer, asking for the souls of the dead to be bound into the bundle of life, an image I find particularly comforting as I imagine each soul to be one of the threads of a tapestry that is still being woven. Each thread remains important, even if it has come to an end – it keeps in place the others around it, adds to the pattern, anchors the ones to come…. It has always seemed to me a richer and more positive image than that of peaceful resting, while containing within it that desire for eternal calm and serenity alongside a sense of history and continuation.

So when looking at its source I came across the full verse in the book of Samuel, I was rather taken aback when I found Abigail saying to King David

And though someone  rise up to pursue you, and to seek your soul, yet the soul of my lord shall be bound in the bundle of life with the Eternal your God; And the souls of your enemies shall God sling out, as from the hollow of a sling.” (1 Sam 25:29)

Such a violent image in the second half of that verse, it takes the idea of being bound up with God in a continuing tapestry of life, of having a stake in the future while rooting the past securely and turns it on its head – now the souls of the ones who seek to destroy others are slung out as from a slingshot, to fall onto barren ground and to perish alone and without hope.

Violent and bleak, and yet I can understand why the authors of that prayer took the verse for their liturgy. I can see that while only using the first half with its warm, comforting and life affirming imagery they would have known that their listeners would also recognised the unsaid words. The people who had callously murdered other human beings simply for their being Jews would also not be forgotten by God, their recompense would not have been the certainty of being part of an ongoing tradition and community as was the lot of the victims, but a dislocated lonely and abandoned future.

As I stood with my brother and sister at the grave of my great aunt Lily, looking at the acronym that I have seen so many times in my rabbinic life, it came into focus in a different way, in the way that it must have first been written.

We mourn our dead, we mourn for the way so many lives were cut short, were filled with pain and anxiety, with separation from loved ones and disparagement and fear. But we honour them and we live lives in which the threads of their existence continue to have meaning and purpose, bringing them with us into the future.  And we remember those who brought about such horrors, and who continue to disturb and disrupt the peace and goodness of the world. And we know that somehow, somewhere, God does not forget.