Carnegie Shul Chatter – December 12, 2013

Candle lighting time is 4:37

Prelude to the Mourners Kaddish

I originally intended to talk about the Mourners Kaddish today, but instead I am going to postpone that discussion until I return from Florida in January.

Instead of discussing the Kaddish, I am going to instead talk about something that no one likes to talk about, but something that is a natural part of life for all of us, and something that is a precursor to our reciting the Kaddish, and that, of course, is death and dying.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we all had lifespans like some of those who are mentioned in the Torah?  Methuselah lived to the ripe old age of 969.  Abraham was 175 when he died.  Moses lived exactly 120 years.  But, alas, we mortals of today do not live nearly as long as those folks.

And how long do we want to live?  For some, our days end peacefully as we fall asleep and pass quietly in the night, but for others death is not so easy.  How sad it is to see someone whose final years are lost in the confusion of Alzheimers disease.   Others die painful deaths from diseases like pancreatic cancer or Lou Gehrig’s disease.  The end of our days can certainly be a trying time for us and for our families.

In our modern times we have many new technologies, medicines, and machines that can help us prolong our lives indefinitely.  But when is enough enough?

One case that many of us can recall was the case of Karen Ann Quinlan.  When she was 22, Quinlan became unconscious after arriving home from a party.  After she collapsed and stopped breathing twice, the paramedics took her to a hospital, where she lapsed into a persistent vegetative state.   She was kept alive on a ventilator for several months after which her parents requested that the hospital disconnect her from life support and allow her to die. The courts finally allowed Quinlan to be removed from her ventilator and it was assumed by her doctors that she would die very soon thereafter.  But Quinlan lived on in that persistent vegetative state for almost a decade until her death from pneumonia in 1985.

Why did Quinlan continue to live for nearly a decade without life support?  Was God not ready for her?  Even if she had remained on life support, couldn’t God have taken her at any time when He was ready for her, machines or no machines?

And what about the moral and ethical issues surrounding death, organ donation, organ selling, abortion, abortion to save a life, and so many other issues about which we may be called upon to make an extremely difficult decision at a time when our judgements may be impaired by our emotions.

Most of us know that the Torah values life above all else, but when is it okay to end life?  How do we cope with these situations that are so very, very difficult?

What does our Jewish faith tell us to do?

My wife, Ellen, and I are currently taking a class called Life In the Balance, Jewish Perspectives on Everyday Medical Dilemmas, at the Chabad of the South Hills.  The class is one of a series of classes provided by the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute, and it attempts to guide us through many of these sometimes overwhelming issues.

There are no easy answers that I can publish for you here today, but I can tell you that when you are faced with troubling issues such as these, or when you are contemplating what to put in your living will, a rabbi can help guide you with wisdom from the Torah and the Talmud that will help you to reach your decisions.  The Torah may have been written long before the invention of our modern machines and technologies, but it still has the answers to help us deal with issues that even our forefathers never had to deal with.

The decisions will still be painful and difficult, but hopefully our faith in God will help give us the strength to better cope with these trying dilemmas.

Fun in the Sun

Ellen and I are headed south for a much needed vacation in sunny Florida.  I will be taking a break from my blog for a couple of weeks, but will be back in January.  In the meantime, have some matzoh ball soup to stay warm and healthy, and have a safe and Happy New Year.


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