Thursday, July 14, 2016

Death in Living Color / Parshat Chukkat 2016-5776

Last week the phone rang. The caller asked if I would lead a shiva minyan for her family because the rabbi who had officiated at the funeral was obligated elsewhere. When I arrived, her uncle said, “As sad as this loss is, I have wonderful memories of my brother’s death. You were there. Do you remember?” I certainly did. His brother had been in a hospice facility, no longer responsive by the time I was called in because I am a hospice rabbi. When I first arrived, and each time I visited, he was surrounded by his large and loving family: siblings, cousins, children, nieces and nephews, all their spouses. There was a mixture of both sadness and partying in the air—tears and laughter in two-part harmony. They were holding vigil and someone was with him around the clock. After several days, I brought everyone together and suggested that their loved one might prefer to die alone, with no one else present.  In particular, I suspected that he did not want to die with his wife present. His wife and soulmate was in the beginning stages of dementia and confused about what was happening. I suspected that he didn’t want her to see him die. I explained this to the relatives and asked them to each say goodbye, assure him of their
 commitment to care for his wife, and tell him that they were leaving for an hour to get dinner and he would be alone for that hour. They weren’t entirely comfortable with this suggestion but, to their credit, they were willing to trust me—at least for one hour. At 5:30 pm they all said goodbye, promised they would care for his wife, and told him they were going for dinner and would not be back for an hour. At 5:40 pm, he passed away. “Ten minutes! Just ten minutes after we left, he died!” the brother recalled at the shiva minyan. “That was exactly what he needed—to do it on his own terms.”

Parshat Chukkat is saturated with accounts of death and concerns for mortality. (Not exactly summer beach reading.) Sometimes we feel overwhelmed by death. In Chukkat, we read the accounts of the deaths of two great souls: Miriam and Aaron. Miriam dies in Kadesh in the wilderness of Tzin. Surprisingly, despite saving Moses’ life when he was an infant and her role as a prophet and leader of the people for four decades in the Wilderness, Torah devotes precisely five Hebrew words to her passing (I need seven to translate) and without telling us that the people mourned her passing: Miriam died there and was buried there (Numbers 20:1). The well that accompanied the Israelites through the wilderness on Miriam’s account disappeared when she died. The Israelites immediately complain and quarrel with Moses about water—they fear they will die of thirst. The old trop of how much better life was in Egypt is resurrected: Why did you make us leave Egypt to bring us to this wretched place, a place with no grain or figs or vines or pomegranates? There is not even water to drink! (Numbers 20:5-6) Moses must return to an earlier method of bringing water: striking a rock with his staff. Most likely because Moses was consumed with grief over the passing of his beloved sister, he loses his temper and strikes the rock twice in anger. Water emerges, but God promulgates the harsh decree that Moses will not enter Eretz Yisrael with the people, Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people (Numbers 20:12). Moses, too, will die in the wilderness. It is then time to move on and the people need to pass through the territory of Edom. Moses sends a message ahead containing Israel’s promise to the Edomites: We will not pass through fields or vineyards, and we will not drink water from wells. We will follow the king’s highway turning off neither to the right nor to the left until we have crossed your territory. (Numbers 20:17). Edom refuses to grant Israel passage even after Moses offers to pay for any water they consume, and instead sends a heavily armed force to back up their refusal with the threat of violence and death. The Israelites arrive at Mount Hor. God instructs Moses to strip Aaron of his priestly garments and place them on Elazar, Aaron’s son, who is designated to be the next High Priest. Aaron died there on the summit of the mountain… All the house of Israel bewailed Aaron thirty days (Numbers 20:28-29). Two deaths and the decree of a third. After thirty days of mourning, the Israelites set out from Mount Hor by way of the Sea of Reeds in order to skirt the land of Edom. And again the people take up the trop, “Why did you make us leave Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread and no water, and we have come to loathe this miserable food.” (Numbers 21:4-5) At this, God attacks the people with seraph serpents that bite and kill many. Miriam and Aaron are dead, along with all those bitten by the seraphim, and in between the people fear they will die of thirst or at the hands of the Edomites. It seems that death gives way to more death and even more death.
Fearing and abhorring death is a measure of how much we love life. But it is not the only attitude toward death one can hold nor the only way to express love of life. I recently read Deathbed Wisdom of the Hasidic Masters (2016: Jewish Lights Publishing) by Rabbis Joel H. Baron and Sara Paasche-Orlow. Their joint project is a lovely translation, annotation, and expansion of Benjamin Mintz’s Sefer ha-Histalkut (“Book of Departure”), originally published in 1930, which contains forty-two accounts of the final days and the deaths of hasidic masters from the Baal Shem Tov (d. 1760) through his disciples’ disciples’ disciples at the end of the 19th century. Baron and Paasche-Orlow’s translation includes explanations of Scriptural references and rituals mentioned in the stories, and also a generous menu of essays on topics ranging from pragmatic concerns (e.g., dealing with dementia, depression, doctors, and cemeteries) to religious and spiritual concerns (e.g., meditation, liminality, unification, and talking with God). Many will be surprised to learn that for the hasidim, death is considered a joyous occasion, the moment when one will finally be fully united with God. Many of the stories recount singing and dancing toward the end of life. Rebbbe Nachman of Bratzlav continued to teach, tell stories of the Baal Shem Tov, and pray until the very end. R. Menachem Mendel of Kotzk refused medication and the services of a doctor. His loved ones called a doctor anyway, so he refused to speak to anyone. R. Yitzhak Meir Rotenberg-Alter spent his last hours teaching Talmud to his young grandson, and then covered himself with a tallit (perhaps so the child would not see his beloved grandfather die). The stories reflect all the realities we are familiar with: people who want to push death away for a while longer, people who are ready to die, people who are seek to make connections with their loved ones and students before passing, and those who push everyone away and wish to be alone.

 As a hospice chaplain, I see all these approaches to dying, from those who make their hospice room party central, to those who stop communicating and withdraw into their own thoughts and feelings. Each person has their own Torah for dying, and many of us might not know what ours is until the moment arrives. But thinking about what dying can be affords us the opportunity, if we also have the possibility, to shape our leave-taking to some degree. Just as how we live our lives determines our legacy, so too how we take leave of life is part of the legacy we leave those closest to us.

The stories of death and mortality in Parshat Chukkat are bookended by passages about life: Chukkat opens with the ritual of the red heifer, an arcane ritual purification practice that removed the taint of tuma’ah (ritual impurity) imparted by contact with death. At the other end, Chukkat closes with a note about a be’er (“well”) — water being the quintessence of life in the desert — and Israel’s conquest of the Amorites and Bashan just prior to arriving in Jericho. The well brings water — life-giving, life-sustaining water. Certainly we’d much prefer to think about and plan for living, rather than dying. But our leave-taking is not only part of our life (the last chapter) but a significant part of the lives of those who love us.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

No comments:

Post a Comment