A Moment of Awe, Beauty, Courage, and Death

There is awe, beauty, and courage in so many things, and I encountered them at the moment of death of someone who had chosen to end his life before illness and infection took control.

“Jeremy” was one of my synagogue’s members who had, for the last 40 years, suffered from muscular dystrophy.

Dealing courageously with his disease, he became frustrated with the constant deterioration of his body: confinement to a wheelchair; increasing limitations of his upper body; inability to swallow food; and then, 12 months ago, complete reliance on a ventilator to breathe. This most likely led to a recent bout of pneumonia which no antibiotic could conquer.

We watched with great angst as Jeremy’s condition worsened over the last few years. As his rabbi, I felt completely helpless. There was very little else I could offer him, and all we could do was to give comfort.

Jeremy and his wife “Diana” had learned to accommodate the many indignities of his infirmity, but this recent infection placed them at hope’s end. Jeremy was now unable to move his limbs or speak. He could be fed only by fluids, and the incision for his tracheotomy had become distended and could no longer properly accommodate the breathing tube.

The couple realized that the likely result of the current crisis was a certain death from the pneumonia, and only God knew when. What was their next step?

Atul Gawande, in “Being Mortal”, suggests two kinds of courage when dealing with serious illness. “First is the courage to confront the reality of mortality, the courage to seek out the truth of what is to be feared and what is to be hoped…But even more daunting is the…courage to act on the truth we find.” (page 232)

Jeremy and Diana sought courage at this moment in their lives, and they determined to seize control over Jeremy’s limited life path—a control which, according to Gawande, terminally ill people crave—and decided that they would remove the respirator and let nature take its course.

During the afternoon leading up to this procedure, Jeremy and Diana had proper briefings from his doctor. Procedures were explained; consents signed; the bureaucracy satisfied.

In the final hour, Diana and I came back to the hospital. Also in attendance were Jeremy’s niece and her husband, plus two good friends of Diana who had been with her over the years.

Over the unceasing din of his respirator—a constant companion for the last 12 months—we spoke with Jeremy, we sang songs of hope and wholeness (Debbie Friedman’s “B’yado” helped a lot), I offered, on Jeremy’s behalf, the Vidui, the prayer of confession to be said on one’s deathbed, and Diana sat by his side, stroking his emaciated arms and his withered scalp and face. Comforted in this way, Jeremy dozed between wakefulness and sleep, sometimes conscious of the people in his room, sometimes not. Yet when he was awake, he was absolutely focused on Diana’s loving face.

I interacted with Jeremy and Diana as needed, but most of the time they simply did what two people in love would do. They maintained their connection through touch and glance.

At the appointed hour, the nursing staff administered a first medication to relax Jeremy. This accomplished its goal, and he leaned back on his pillow. But he kept his eyes fixed on Diana.

A second injection was given in anticipation of Jeremy’s discomfort when the ventilator would be removed. His eyes remained immersed in the eyes of his wife.

A nurse then removed the tube which led to his tracheotomy. She turned off the ventilator, and the room went silent. Jeremy’s and Diana’s eyes remained focused on one another. I was standing behind Diana and looking directly at Jeremy, and he silently mouthed the words “I love you”. Diana repeated this back to Jeremy. Then Jeremy’s eyes lost their focus, and he was gone.

I cried: in the room, silent tears while we recited Sh’ma and I attended to my rabbinic duties. Later, in the elevator on my departure, I sobbed uncontrollably, and I hoped that no one would enter the car with me. I cried in sadness for a life that was lost, and I cried at the beauty of a love that was strong before Jeremy’s death, and that remained after his passing. I wondered whether I would have similar amounts of courage were I in their situations.

Atul Gawande’s words echoed in my ear: I witnessed today the “courage to act on the truth we find”. For this couple, they understood the reality of their situation, and acted to relieve pain and accept the reality they faced. But the truth of their love for one another seemed a stronger verity, a genuineness that only they could share. At Jeremy’s moment of death, there was courage, beauty, and awe. Would it be that way for each of us as we pass from this world to the next.

Rabbi Jonathan Biatch serves Temple Beth El, in Madison, Wisconsin.

chaplains Death High Holy Days

Love and Washing: Preparing for the Days of Awe

The time of death was 6:55 pm, last night.  The patient was 2 weeks old.  Her name means “journey,” her mother explained. As the doctor and nurses prepared to detach the tubes and wires from her tiny body, her tearful family gathered around.  In a soft voice, the head nurse told the family that after the extubation, they would bathe the baby’s body, so the mother could hold her.  Suddenly, one of the aunties looked up and said, “And you said I could help bathe her.”  The nurse agreed firmly.

I looked at the tiny body, oozing and bloody, yet inconceivably pure and innocent. I thought of Psalm 51.7: “Purge me with hyssop and I shall be clean, wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.”

As we work through this month of Elul, preparing each in our own way for those trembling Days of Awe in which we confront our mortality and lead others in confronting their own, I pondered the relationship between love and washing.  The well-known drash on the name of this month, “Ani l’ Dodi, v’Dodi li,” underscores the sentiment that we approach God with love, not fear, as we search ourselves and inventory our transgressions.  Coming up with this list of smudges and soot what are we to do now?

Not until last night, could I fully conceive of what the relationship between forgiveness and love might feel like, what might it look like?  Love bathes. Love washes away- like a warm basin, like a soapy washcloth, like a gentle waterfall.

Showering with a lover, drawing a bath for a child, performing taharah – love cleans.

As we prepare for these Yamim Noraim only weeks away, let us go about the gut wrenching and the mundane, the trivial and the sacred, the parts we like and those we don’t, knowing that God’s gentle hands are already gathering perfumed soaps and oils, warm towels and holy loofahs, in anticipation of washing us clean.

Rabbi Leah Cohen Tenenbaum, D.Min, C’2000 serves as a chaplain at Yale-New Haven Hospital.

Death Healing Israel

Letter from Jerusalem: Love must win 

Thursday, July 30 was planned as a day of celebration of tolerance and acceptance, a day to embrace difference, a day to lift up diversity and cooperation in Israel’s capital as the municipality hosted Jerusalem’s gay pride parade. I arrived in Jerusalem and was delighted to see rainbow flags lining some of the main streets. Near the American Embassy a huge banner declared, in English letters, “LOVE WINS!” The message was repeated in languages from the region and from across the world.

When evening fell and the heat of the day dissipated, we learned of the twin acts of terror that crushed the hopes with which the day began. Eighteen month old Ali Dawabsheh was burned to death in his Duma home by ultra religious Jewish terrorists. One hour away, Shira Banki, walking with friends and classmates in Jerusalem’s gay pride parade, was stabbed by a man who had been released weeks earlier after serving ten years in prison for a similar attack on the 2005 Jerusalem parade. Shira died three days later. Ali’s father, Sa’ad died ten days later. Ali’s mother and 4 year old brother are being treated for major burns, and five other marchers are recovering from stab wounds.

The handwritten sign on the Banki’s door announced shiva from 10 a.m. until 10 p.m. On Thursday, August 6th, we were the first to enter the shiva house. At first, we did not realize that we had been welcomed by Mika, Shira’s mother, because she seemed so young herself. “We are private people,” she said. “We asked that there be no press at the funeral, and none at the shiva, and they have been very respectful.” We leaned in to hear her as others joined us in the garden, a gracious outdoor space shared by the residents of the apartment building. “We recently celebrated our son’s Bar Mitzvah here. As we sat here, we realized it is a lovely space for a wedding. Perhaps, one day, Shira’s wedding. Here we are, with guests and tables filled with food, but this is not a wedding…”

We came with a gift, a book of 1720 signatures and notes of condolence from across the world, collected by the Israel Religious Action Center. Anat Hoffman, the Center’s director, had written Shira’s name on a stone that Shira’s mom held in her hand as she spoke. “The shiva is allowing me an additional week of not comprehending what has happened. Shira is the eldest of our four children. Our house is always open, always filled with our children and their friends. We raised our children to be open, to find their own voice, to walk their own path.”

We sat with Mika, we, four women who have also raised children, three of us now grandmothers. We came as representatives of thousands of others like ourselves who are stunned by the violence that, in one day, shattered the life of many families.

I have visited many shiva houses In the last fifty plus years. I have sat with many who have lost beloveds, both those who have suffered a sudden loss, and those who have sat for days and months at the bedsides of dear ones and watched helplessly as their lives slipped away.

As we sat in the Banki’s garden, we felt Shira’s absence and her presence. The photos of Shira introduced us to a smiling, engaged young woman, who would have celebrated her sixteenth birthday in three months.

This will be the third Shabbat since these twin attacks. When Shabbat ends, Jews across the world will welcome the month of Elul. Our tradition teaches the power of this last month of the year in which we prepare for Rosh HaShanah. Aleph, Lamed, Vav, Lamed, the four letters of the Hebrew name of the month, echo the words of the Song of Solomon, the Song of Songs: Ani L’Dodi V’Dodi Li: I am My Beloved and my Beloved is mine.

How can we love in the shadow of hate? Each new year we are challenged to Choose Life. Our tradition invites us to acknowledge our own fears of death when we sit with the bereaved. This is how we choose life.

Our Judaism urges us, even in the presence of senseless hatred, to affirm love. Ani L’Dodi V’Dodi Li.We inscribe these words of love on wedding rings and sing them as we celebrate love and commitment. These words direct this month of reviewing our days, reconsidering our choices, reaffirming our commitments.

We choose life when we weave these words into the oft-quoted words attributed to the ancient sage, Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

When love wins, we see that If I am not for myself, I cannot be present for another. When love wins, we understand that when we are only for ourselves, we cannot see even the beloved who is before me. When love wins, we grasp that the time is now. Now is the time to choose life, and love.

Our humanity is absolutely bound up with the humanity of others. There is no room for hate in our fragile, interdependent world. We can transform fear of the other into curiosity, and build respect in the place of ignorance.  There is only one people, one fate, one earth, one destiny. The perpetuation of a fiction of essential otherness is a recipe for annhilation.

Just as Eve and Adam left Eden, we took our leave of the Banki family in their garden. When shiva ended, they, too, left their garden. We must honor the memory of Shira Banki and the memories of Ali and Sa’ad Dawabsheh by choosing life, and love. Love must win.

Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell is scholar in residence at Washington Hebrew Congregation. She is also the editor of The Open Door, the CCAR Haggadah (2002).

This blog was originally posted in Washington Jewish Week.