The Process of Living and Dying

This past Shabbat, I had the privilege to learn with Rabbi Jason Weiner while visiting Congregation Beth Israel in Berkley. The title of his talk was, Physician Assisted Suicide: Halachic and Psycho-Social issues that have arisen since the passing of California’s End of Life Options Act.  

Yes, it is now legal to end your own life, if you have a terminal illness, in the state of California. The discussion weaved from dissecting the definition of terminal to understanding the technicalities of how one takes the drug. However, the main focus of the talk was what the Jewish perspective is on end of life decisions . 

At the core of Judaism, there is a practice to do whatever it is we can to preserve life. As it states in the Talmud, “ He who saves a single life, saves the entire world.” 

While the fundamental rule in Judaism states that it is absolutely prohibited to end one’s life, Rabbis help us address the more challenging of situations when a simple rule is not able to satisfy a complex situation like end of life care. 

One of the more common ways around this law stems from the difference between taking passive acts to end one’s life vs active acts to end one’s life.  Not eating and withholding medication is different than taking a pill that will surely kill you in a matter of minutes. At first, it was hard for me to grasp why one of these approaches to death was more acceptable than the other.  Do they not both lead to the same end? And what about suffering, is that not a good enough reason to take a drug that leads you to what is inevitable anyways? 

After much thought, I have come to the following conclusion: Life and Death, the bookends of our lives, are ultimately not controlled by humans rather they are left to the divine hand of G-d. As it says in the book of Job, “ The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord (1:21).” 

When we make the choice not to eat or not to take medication, we are increasing the chances of our death, but we are not the ones pulling the trigger. We are asserting our own free will to make known what we wish for ourselves, but we are not the ones pulling the chord

In matters of death, the process is just as important as the death itself. 

Why is it important that we leave the final say to G-d? What is about surrendering control over our death to the Divine?

I think it has something to do with recognizing just how random and yet planned, profane and yet holy, lonely and yet connected life in this world truly is. It’s that odd pattern that we often fall into: we make plans, find that they never work out how we wished, and yet we still somehow make it to the correct, yet perhaps modified, destination. You see, we humans, are not capable of comprehending the miracle of how our lives seem to unravel in perfect harmony despite the pain and the suffering. We attempt to control, praising ourselves if it works out and blaming others if it does not. What if instead of praising and blaming, we expressed gratitude for what we do have and prayed for whatever it is we desire to manifest?

What would it look like if we took the same approach to life as we take to death? That is surrendering instead of fighting - being instead of controlling. In matters of life, the process is just as important as life itself....