by Rabbi Ze’ev Smason and Barbara A.Olevitch in the St. Louis Jewish Light
Pamela R. Winnick told a fascinating story about her father’s illness in the Wall Street Journal on July 21, 2006. Medical residents had repeatedly asked the family to agree to disconnect his life support. They claimed that the patient would have wanted this. The family disagreed strongly. They thought that he wanted to live.
So in an attempt to relieve the pressure, Winnick told the residents that the family were Orthodox Jews, even though this was not the case. The pressure from the residents immediately stopped. The results of this strategy were incredible. Her father was still dying of lung cancer, but given this additional time, he was able to recover from his unconscious state. To the great joy of the family, he woke up, recovered his sense of humor, and read the New York Times.
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Judaism values every moment of life. One who is dying is regarded as a living person in all respects, and every moment of his life is of infinite value, regardless of his condition.
The value of a single moment of life in modern society is underappreciated. Right-to-die activists have invented something they called “physician-assisted suicide” and are working hard to convince Americans that physicians ought to be writing lethal prescriptions for those who want to die, be they diagnosed with a terminal illness, or even those chronically ill. They have passed legislation in multiple states to legalize what they now euphemistically call “aid in dying,” “death with dignity” and “medical assistance at the end of life.” Judaism calls it murder.
Since God created man in His image, if someone shortens a life, he is destroying something holy. Even if someone wants to die, it is forbidden for him to take his own life or for anyone to help him do so. As it is said in the well-known verse from the Book of Job, “The Lord has given, the Lord has taken, blessed is the Name of the Lord.” Only God has the authority to take life, as well as to bestow it.
Jews who accept the Torah’s guidance are not alone in opposing physician-assisted suicide. Opponents of this practice are working hard to prevent its broader legalization. They publicize multiple problems with assisted suicide; for example, individuals sometimes die slowly and painfully from the death-inducing medicine. Additionally, there is a tendency over time to loosen the so-called safeguards in the legislation. However, details aside, many Americans oppose physician-assisted suicide because they intuitively understand that there is no such thing as a life not worthy to be lived.
A vital component to this discussion must be added: Judaism has an important mitzvah called Bikur Cholim, visiting the sick. When we visit those who are ill, we pray for them. We should also thoughtfully assess the situation to tactfully provide them with their needs. In America, one who is ill may feel dispirited, and even crushed. Beyond the physical aspects of their ailment, the seriously ill patient may suffer acute psychological pain because of our society’s emphasis on youth, beauty, and productivity.
However, Bikur Cholim, visiting the sick, is literally restorative. Encouragement and support from family, friends, and caring medical professionals give the seriously ill patient strength and resolve to live despite their formidable challenges. Remarkably, the Talmud says that one who visits the sick takes away one-sixtieth of their illness.
We once heard a rabbi speak about a hospital visit he made. The critically ill woman was seemingly comatose and was given a very short time to live. The rabbi said he prayed a bit in her presence (a chapter of Psalms), and as he left he said ‘Good Shabbos’ — not expecting that she would even hear what he said. As he was leaving the room, he was astounded to hear the woman faintly say in response, “Good Shabbos.”
The rabbi said, “Do you know what that means? Despite her illness, and despite the fact that someone might have said that her life was meaningless, she said ‘Good Shabbos,’ which was the fulfillment of the 4th commandment — Honor the Sabbath day. Who knows what value that had in Heaven for her, and to those who supported her?”
Every moment of life is of infinite value. In the secular world, they say, “Time is money.” From the Torah perspective, we say, “Time is life.” The clock for every one of us keeps running. The days, the hours, the minutes – and yes, even the seconds quickly move at their unstoppable pace. But we can change the course of our lives in even as small a fraction of time as a second.
Perhaps that’s why it’s called a “second” — because it gives us a second chance to rectify our mistakes, redirect our goals, redefine our values, and become better versions of who we are from the perspective of who we could be.
You are richer than 93% of people.
Not in money, but in time. Throughout history, 108 billion people have lived — 93% of them are dead.
You have what every king and queen, every pharaoh and ruler, every CEO and celebrity of the past would give all their wealth for: Today.
Why? Because life, every moment of life, is an invaluable treasure.
Originally published in the St. Louis Jewish Light