Vayelech: the time for us to grow up and take responsibility for our choices is upon us. or: the bnei mitzvah of the people of Israel

Eight years ago one of my dearest friends was about to be seventy years old, and she decided to celebrate this momentous and biblical age by having her batmitzvah. I had tried to persuade her to do this for years and she had brushed me off; it is typical of her that she made her choice by herself on a date that had such resonance, and then throw herself into study and thinking for herself.  We talked a little about the date and the sidra, and then she chose to direct her own study and do her own research. Luckily she sent me a near final draft. I say luckily because she never read this drasha or celebrated that long awaited day, for with everything planned and organised and ready to go, she suffered a cataclysmic and sudden bereavement and the weekend was taken over instead with grief and shock and the arrangements to honour the dead.

We spoke a while afterwards about her celebrating her batmitzvah on a different date but we both knew that was not really going to happen. The anticipated joy would never be the same, the shadow of grief never quite left her, and she too would depart this world suddenly and unexpectedly and quite dramatically, leaving the rest of us a small flavour of the shock she had experienced on the day of her birthday batmitzvah, to grieve and to question, and to process the reality of what happens when a life is torn from the world without warning.

Checking my computer recently, and thinking also of her as I do at this time of year, I came across an email where she had sent me this draft of the drasha she was to give to the community she had been at the heart of for so many years. With the permission of her children, I want to share it here.

“Vayelech is the shortest parsha in the Torah. It is 30 verses long, and I don’t recall ever hearing it read. In non-leap years like this one it is linked with Nitzavim. When I read Nitzavim-Vayelech they held together. They are followed next week by Ha’azinu which, when I looked it up I discovered is one the 10 Shirot [songs] conceived or written as part of the Almighty’s pre-Creation preparations. The only one still to be written is the song we will sing when the Messiah comes. 

We are coming to the end of the Torah. This name, given to the first of the three sections of the Hebrew Bible, is better translated as Teaching. We are coming to the end of the month of Elul the month in which we begin to prepare for the approaching High Holy Days, and in the coming week we will celebrate Rosh Hashanah which in turn is followed by the 10 days of penitence and Yom Kippur. Then in roughly a month’s time on Simchat Torah we will finish reading the Teaching, the end of Deuteronomy, and seamlessly begin Bereishit – Genesis – again. 

Vayelech must contain the most important rite of passage in the whole history of our planet. But we will come to that.  

Israel is camped in its tribal groups on the banks of the Jordan, waiting to cross. The preceding parsha, Nitzavim, tells of Moses addressing the whole of Israel, in preparation for entering the land God has promised them. He reminds them they are standing before God, and is clear that every person is included in this relationship.

 [my son] tells me I can tell one joke… a clear example of don’t do as I do, do as I say …but I have two, and we will come to the second soon. A very good friend sent me a card, writing in it “I saw this, and thought of you.” The cartoon was a line drawing of 2 dogs, the larger one saying: “I understand more commands than I obey.” I hope you agree with me, that this is arguable!

Moses and God know from experience that the Children of Israel will fail to follow God’s Teaching. 

Moses warns those listening to him that the consequences of disobedience will be that the land will become desolate, but mitigates this by prophesying they will make t’shuvah, return to the right way, and God will reconcile with them and bring them back.

 And he says something that has always troubled me:  that the commandment he is giving to them and so to us “is not beyond you, or too remote. Not in Heaven, or across the sea. It is very close to you… in your mouth and in your heart, so you can do it.”

 What I have never been sure of is what this is, what it is that is in my heart, and in my mouth?  Not the 10 Commandments – too many!    And not the 613 mitzvot buried in the text. And then the man who is not my chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks said quite plainly on radio 4, no less, what it is, even quoting where I should find it. It is found in Genesis chapter 18, vv 17 – 19, where God is choosing Abraham because he deals with his household with Tzedakah and Mishpat:  two words which together give the meaning of justice tempered with mercy. This is how we hope God will deal with us on Yom Hakippurim.

 And finally Moses said that we have a choice, God has given us the choice of life and death – blessing and curse. We should choose to love God and walk in God’s path and keep God’s commandments. And just as the penalties for not doing so have been listed, the rewards of obeying are explained. 

What we have been told is that all Israel is equally bound by this covenant, regardless of social position or occupation. And that even if we disobey God’s Laws there can be future redemption.

Further, we know that obedience to God’s Laws is within our scope. 

And also that we are to have that freedom to choose that sets us apart from the animals.

 And then we come to today’s portion, .Vayelech “And he went” which is the beginning of the rite of passage for the Children of Israel.

 There is to be a change of “Top Management”. This is the day of Moses’s 120th birthday, and Moses has finally accepted that it is also his death day. It’s been hard for Moses to come to terms with his mortality, and he has behaved a little like a child trying to justify not going to bed, not just yet. There’s no time to discuss this today, try reading Louis Ginsberg’s Legends of the Jews. God has been forbearing with this servant with whom God has been in conversation for the last 40 years.

 In this time the generations born into slavery have died, and the people who are born into freedom have known no other Leader. Moses has taught them, settled disputes, referred knotty halachic problems directly to God, and brought back the answers. It is explained that God will go with them, and lead them across the Jordan. Further, that although Moses may not go, they will have Joshua.

 Moses has been frightened of dying, and the Almighty has shown him Aaron’s painless death. God is giving him the signal honour of dying on the anniversary of his birthday, and although Moses is not to be allowed to cross the Jordan God has taken him to look down upon the land.

 Moses is kept busy on this day – there are the tribes to address, and writing enough copies of the Teaching to give one to each tribe, and lodge one in the Ark of the Covenant. This is talked of as a witness against the people, but I suppose it’s the master copy, and proof of God’s promises and provisions. Moses writes The Scroll to the very end, until it is finished, which is taken to mean that it is prophetic, containing as it does an account of his death. Further, the Almighty gives him a message to deliver, and a song of 43 verses, one of the 10 Shirot, to teach to the people.

  How many people do you think there were, camped by the river? How many going into the Promised Land?

 Jacob went to Egypt with 72 souls in his household. A rabble of 600,000 freed slaves left Egypt – and these were the men of fighting age. Add their relatives – minimally a wife each, one child. – Not parents and siblings – this could cause doubtful accounting – a conservative estimate would be 1,800,000 people. No wonder manna was needed!

Nor was it just Jews who escaped Egypt, plenty of escapee opportunists would have taken the chance, and been the “strangers within your gates” who are to have equality under the covenant with Jacob’s descendants.

 The instruction was given for this to be read every seven years in the shemittah year. All Israel is commanded to gather at Succot in the place God has appointed (eventually the Temple in Jerusalem) and the King read to the people from the Scroll.

 And the chapter ends with the prediction that Israel with turn away from God, and that God’s reaction would be to turn God’s face away from them – but also with the promise that their descendants will not forget the words which will remain in their mouths.

 So what is happening?

 It seems that with the completion of the Torah and our entry into the Promised Land, our Creator considers we are grown up. We have the Torah; we have the record in it of discussions and decisions. We are aware that we can judge matters between human beings – but not matters between human beings and God. We cannot deal with these because it is not our business to govern or over-rule another’s conscience.

 God will not appoint another Moses – there is to be no dynastical continuity. No further theophanies. Israel has become a nation of priests with everyone having access to the Almighty and to God’s mercy.

 And when we begin Genesis all over again, we go back to Creation and the dysfunctional families of Adam and Noah. When we come to Abraham, look out for the Teaching and how it is built on chapter by chapter.

 And where’s the second joke? – listen to the translation.”

Sadly, we never heard the second joke. And the poignancy of some of the comments in the drasha make for difficult reading for those who knew her and knew her later story, though the mischief of her personality comes through this text for me, as does her clear and certain faith in God. This was a woman who, as administrator in the synagogue, would regularly leave open the door to the sanctuary in her office hours “because God likes to go for a walk”, but actually so that visitors would feel able to enter and sit and offer their prayers or order their thoughts. She would tidy up the siddurim and make sure they were properly shelved, saying that upside down books “gave God a headache”, to cover her need to honour God by keeping the synagogue neat. She spent hundreds of hours talking to the lonely, reassuring the frightened, supporting the vulnerable. She spent hundreds of hours creating the databases and systems to ensure that the synagogue ran as effectively as it could. And the roots of all this voluntary caring for the synagogue community was her own life’s struggles and her awareness that if God considers we are grown up now, with equal access to the Almighty and no “top management” to direct us, then we had better get on with it, with the work of creating and sustaining the world with tzedakah and mishpat, with righteousness and justice.

In this period of the Ten Days, as we reflect on the lives we are leading, the choices we are making, and the mortality that will come for us all, either with or without warning, I read her drasha as a modern ”unetaneh tokef”, and, as I was for so many years when I was her rabbi and she my congregant, I am grateful for the learning I had from her.

 

In memoriam Jackie Alfred. September 1940 – January 2017

 

 

 

 

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.

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