Published in the Baltimore Jewish Times Parsha Chukat Rabbi Moshe P. Weisblum
Could the Terry Schiavo case have been avoided?
Sometimes, we are put into a position of decision making whereby our judgment, choices, and actions have significant consequences for ourselves and others.
In this week’s Torah portion, Chukat, we lost two of our greatest leaders, Miriam and Aaron, Moshe’s sister and brother.
Following G-d’s explicit instructions, Moshe accompanies Aaron and Aaron’s son, Eleazar, up Mount Hor and places Aaron’s priestly garments on the young man. Aaron lies down, closes his eyes, and takes his final breath. The Torah tells us that the Israelites mourned his passing for thirty days. In reading over this passage we are inspired to consider: Is there a better or more peaceful way to depart from this world than surrounded by your loved ones, knowing that your personal affairs are in order and that your values will live on through your heirs?
Moshe did not have to deal with issues such as health care proxy, wills, estates, executor, advance directives, decisions with doctors, health care professionals, lawyers, insurance agents, accountants or bankers. Moshe rose to the occasion and carried out his responsibilities guided by G-d’s laws and Torah’s teachings in a most respectful, dignified and humane manner. The busy leader of K’lal Yisrael showed exemplary compassion while at Aaron’s side. He was a sensitive, loving caregiver. Moshe exhibited clarity, calm, and respect. He also considered how the people left behind would be affected. He made the right moral and spiritual choices. Will we make the right choices? Fortunately, the Torah is eternal and can be judiciously applied to all of life’s affairs.
Our Biblical ancestors could not have anticipated all the medical advances and life-saving procedures we often take for granted. Yet, as the recent Terri Schiavo case so forcefully – and sadly – illustrates, it is crucial to express one’s medical treatment preferences while fully able to do so. Perhaps all the horrific publicity and the family feuding could have been avoided if the Schiavos had a clear plan in writing. There might have been less second guessing about what she would have wanted. The doctors would have been required to follow her directives before technology was used to extend life and would not be caught in the crossfire between relatives. Unfortunately, only 41% of Americans have an estate will. Even less have specific instructions for advance directives or ethical wills.
Furthermore, we know families who have been torn apart by estates and inheritances where there was no established or equitable will. Here again, the key is preparation and education. Planning in advance, in accordance with Jewish tradition and state law could avoid unpleasant legal battles, family strife and financial disputes.
Though we cannot predict an unforeseen situation or how the end will come, anticipating and planning for that event through advance health care directives and living wills is one of the greatest gifts we can give, sparing our loved ones the tremendous burden of making such decisions on their own.
Advance directives and living wills allow a person to state in writing, his or her wishes regarding end-of-life issues, and to appoint a reliable family member or friend to carry them out in consultation with one’s medical providers and rabbinical experts as circumstances arise. Among the procedures that may be covered in an advance directive or living wills are cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), ventilators, dialysis, surgery, chemotherapy, blood transfusions, diagnostic tests, and antibiotics.Pikku’ach nefesh is the sacred Jewish duty of saving the life of one’s fellow human being. Rabbis, Jewish ethicists, and legal experts across the spectrum have considered these issues with the utmost care and in drawing up an advance directive or living will, a person should seek the advice of his or her spiritual leader as well. Being proactive, not reactive, by spelling out the steps you want taken regarding the end of your life is a responsible and courageous choice. Anticipating future needs can have a profound impact on families and communities for generations to come.
It is customary to study Pirkei Avot – Ethics of the Fathers – during the summer months. As it says in chapter 2, verse 8: "The more Torah, the more life; the more study, the more wisdom; the more advice, the more understanding…" Words to live by! May we be blessed with wisdom to think ahead for a meaningful life that honors both the living and those who have passed on. Shabbat Shalom.