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April 1, 2005
This week death came to our own community, claiming one of our beloved members, and much like the poet Mary Oliver has written, death chills like an iceberg between the shoulder blades; ravages like a hungry bear; snaps life shut like a purse, leaving all the bright coins of our prayers and hopes spent and spilled.
As we mourn for our dear friend Marvin, our national community too, has also been dealing with death; churning over the theological and ethical issues raised by Terry Shiavo's circumstances. Then the news of the Pope in his final days. Then the news from the frontlines in Iraq about killing to end suffering. And I realized there was one and only one thing that could be spoken of this Shabbat.
I believe that these stories are coming into the public mind for a reason. It is certainly easy to fall into judgment, or to condemn the politicization of one woman's ill fortune. But let's try for the time-being to raise ourselves up from the level of opinion and look beyond Congressional or partisan politics at what is happening in the grander scheme. When we do, we can see that the Shaivo family's struggle is a struggle taking place in our collective body. That means it belongs to us all.
Whether or not we are conscious of it, to be alive in our era of ubiquitous-technology—which allows us to save, prolong and manipulate life—means that we are necessarily living in tension: the tension between our own super human power, and our simple human power. Between verging on divinity, hubrus, and our earthy humanity, humus, meaning ground or soil. The Latin root of humility and humanity.
A story from the TĆlmud shows that even though our technology is unprecedented, the tension between hubris and humus is not. I believe this the rabbis were also dealing with a similar dilemma.
During the days that Rabbi Yehudah lay dying, the rabbis decreed a public fast and offered ceaseless prayers for heavenly mercy so that he would not die. Rabbi Yehudah's faithful handmaiden ascended to the roof and prayed for him.
But as she watched him over the next days, she saw his great agony, and she changed her prayer that he might be released from his suffering.
The rabbis camped out around R.Yehudah's bed praying for heavenly mercy. What did the handmaiden do? She went up to the roof with a big ceramic jug and threw it down, shattering it with a loud noise. The rabbis, startled by the sound, stopped praying and turned to see what had happened. It was at that moment, that the soul of Rabbi Yehudah departed.
In †his story, the handmaiden brings everything down to earth. The falling earthenware jug is a wonderful symbol of a return to humus, humility, humanity, in which life can have its way. You see, the rabbis had their own way of manipulating life. They were confident that the Angel of Death could not cross the barrier of their prayers. Their sacred science was prayer. Our way, two thousand years later, is advanced medical technology, the ultimate modus operandi. And who among us, facing illness, would not choose the best and most refined technology to when offered a choice?
But herein lies a trap. For it is easy to be wooed by the illusion of omnipotence that medical technology gives us. There is a reason that the field of bio-ethics now holds office in every hospital and university, within every church and synagogue movement. Bio-ethics has emerged in our lifetimes because the power that our technologies wield can so easily obfuscate our simple humanity, so quickly obscure our view of the Powers that Be, so easily go haywire and rob us of the dignity of being simple, mortal creatures.
But, you might argue, isn't this our mandate from Torah? To preserve Life. Uvachartem B'Chayim. And the preservation of life is one of the most precious values we have, the chief rubric by which we determine our halachah.
Yes, the Talmud says, that's also true. And there is another force at play, as well. The rabbis called it mazal. Our mazal, for example, not we, governs our allotted time on this earth.
Raba said: Three things depend not on the merit of our actions, but on mazal: the length of our life, our children, and our parnasa (Moed Katan 28a) 24 For [take] Rabbah and R. Hisda. Both were saintly Rabbis; one master prayed for rain and it came, the other master prayed for rain and it came. R. Hisda lived to the age of ninety-two, Rabbah [only] lived to the age of forty. In R. Hisda's house there were held sixty marriage feasts, at Rabbah's house there were sixty bereavements. At R. Hisda's house there was the purest wheaten bread for dogs, and it went to waste; In Rabbah's house, barely enough food for humans….
This teaching is not meant to make us feel impotent but to show that there are factors at play that we cannot see, factors that no matter what we do to consciously manipulate, are beyond our reach. Our mazal is the unseen mystery in our lives; mazal defies our conscious efforts to control our lifespan.
So we have mazal on one side. And we have the mandate, so deeply inculcated into us as Jews, and throughout the JudeoChristian world: To preserve Life. Uvachartem B'Chayim.
The tension between these is where we reside. It is the tension between the finality of our fate and the possibility of our efforts. Yes, I have spoken about this before and will probably speak of it again because it is a conundrum which demands our attention; a knot that begs to be teased apart but which will, in the end, not be undone.
Is it important to note what the rabbis have to say in the bioethical debate before us? Of course, there is no such thing as one verdict in Judaism. There is a range of beliefs. But it is interesting to note that much like the Christian Right, Jesse Jackson and other unlikely bedfellows, most traditional rabbis concur that you are simply not allowed to remove what they consider to be a source of sustenance. Preservation of life at all costs. Fifteen years ago, had MS Shiavo been left alone, without intervention, it would have been ok to let her die naturally. But once the intervention has been made, traditional J-m says you may not remove it.
An act of omission is permitted;an act of commission is not.
Life must be given a chance. If, however, something worse is happening due to a medical procedure or device, for instance, pain is being inflicted or infection is occurring due to a medical device, it is acceptable to remove the medical device.) While traditional rabbis argue that life must be preserved at all costs, many liberal rabbis argue that the feeding tube is not providing food at all, it is rather a medical device, an intervention which may be stopped.
No matter what the church, synagogue, halachic and bioethical authorities say, I think it is interesting to note what the people say. Despite the fact that both church and synagogue advocate the preservation of life at all costs, a large majority of Americans surveyed believe that MS Shiavo had the right to die. Our positive obligation to fight for life has limits. These limits have to do with our simple humanity, and our humanity brings us face to face with another value, our dignity.
I am speaking about something difficult here: How do we find balance between two urgent calls wired inexorably within us: the call to claim and preserve life at all costs and the call within us to surrender to our mazal, to let which is beyond us to have its way?
This tension of opposites is impossible because they are not really opposites at all, but two sides of one coin. Neither one alone is the answer: neither facile surrender nor sustained Herculean efforts. And I believe this is why the Shiavo case has no winners. Rather, each of us must work to find some sane way through this paradox, a third way, a born of both surrender and fight.
Each of us must face into death, that hungry bear who would ravage us, and prepare for it, not let it sneak up on us. In this age of technology, each of us must protect our own rights and dignity. I heard this morning that one website offering advanced directives, and legal advice had gone from 12 hits an hour to 30, 000. We are as a collective getting the message. Talk to your lawyers and friends who will witness and testify to your wishes regarding your will to live and your right to die. Think through how important the last days of life are, they are the fruit and flower of our lives that will bear seeds for our soul's journey. How do you want them to go? What are the limits of your dignity?
I want to close with two brief vignettes of dignity in the face of this uncomfortable tension we have been discussing tonight: In our Torah portion this Shabbat, death strikes the two sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu. There are numerous takes on why and how they died. What is of importance here is how their father reacts to their death. The Torah says nothing more than: Vayidom Aharon. Aharon was silent. It is a profound silence. It contains within it many things: self mastery, surrender, and pain. It is a way Aharon chose to contain his struggle.
The other illustration comes from the life of CSLewis, the famous Catholic theologian and author, a don at Oxford University, the writer of the Narnia Trilogy and Screwtape Letters, etc. Lewis was a brilliant and stodgy bachelor. His life was predictable and highly controlled, that is, until he met and fell in love with Joy Davidman Gresham. Joy was a no nonsense, free-spirited woman who broke through Lewis' stiff armor, And for the first time, Lewis' heart was moved out of his books and fantasies to open to another human being.
The couple planned to be married when Joy was diagnosed with terminal cancer. But it was too late, CSLewis loved her too much to turn back.
In his book Surprised By Joy, (made into the movie Shadowlands) Lewis describes his struggle. It was not medical technology but the sheer power of his will that, like the rabbis' vigil, held her to life.
Joy finally asks CSLews to let her go. To give her permission to die. I cant leave you, I don't want to leave you, unless you tell me that it is alright for me to go.
And then, like the crashing of the jug from the rooftop, something breaks inside of Lewis. He understands that it is not the power of his efforts but the surrender of his efforts that is needed. Huge shift.
After an immense struggle, CSLewis whispers to Joy: If you cannot hold on…if you are too hurt and weary, if you are in too much pain, you can let go. I will be all right. My life will be immeasurably diminished,but I will go on until it is my time to join you.
My friends, each of us, sooner or later, will be called to entertain this struggle. To fight for our own lives and the lives of our loved ones; and to surrender the same. For some it will happen sooner, for some later, each according to our mazal. The struggle is not going to go away. What matters most is how we dance with the tension. How we walk this labrynth of humanity and divinity. May we be blessed to masterfully protect life as long as it is dignified, and to know when, like the handmaiden of ReBYehudah it is time to surrender control. And until that time arrives, may compassion and forgiveness for ourselves and each other be our guide.
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