Sunday, July 8, 2012

God's "Death Panel" / Pinchas

On Thursday, July 16, 2009, Betsy McCaughey (former lieutenant governor of New York) spoke out against the health care act of 2009 (bill HR 3200) on the Fred Thompson radio show. She said, “Congress would make it mandatory — absolutely require — that every five years people in Medicare have a required counseling session that will tell them how to end their life sooner." How? McCaughey claimed that these sessions would teach elderly people how to “decline nutrition, how to decline being hydrated, how to go into hospice care... all to do what's in society's best interest or in your family's best interest and cut your life short." Within weeks, Sarah Palin launched the “Death Panel” myth, injecting venomous lies into an important political conversation for this country to hold.

The truth, which McCaughey and Palin worked assiduously to obscure with hysterical claims and terrifying scenarios, is that Section 1233 of the bill -- “Advanced Care Planning Consultation” -- would have provided compensation for doctors to counsel Medicare patients concerning advanced directives and end-of-life care options. You know the rest.

Politically, McCaughey, Palin, Fox, and all the talk radio hosts who chimed in to spread the lie, did an enormous disservice to our nation by contributing to the degradation of political debate and ramping up rank partisanship yet another notch. On a societal level -- and this is my concern for this drash -- they knowingly scared people away from facing the end-of-life reality and discussing their options with physicians and social workers.

Hospice, which provides unique end-of-life care, has taken hold and grown roots in this country. Hospice affords the very best way to retain a meaningful and valuable measure of control in a painful and sad situation. A coordinated, interdisciplinary team of professionals delivers care: doctors, nurses, social workers, chaplains, and bereavement counselors. Unfortunately, it is common for people to enter into hospice care only days before they die. Sometimes it is the failure of families to face reality. Often it is the failure of doctors to be completely open with the family about the situation; doctors are trained to treat and cure, after all.

McCaughey and Palin have polluted our culture with outright lies that continue to breed fear and make it more difficult to help families face reality. The result is more pain and suffering -- physically, emotionally, and spiritually -- on the part of the patient and his/her family and friends. Proper end-of-life planning and counseling -- precisely what Section 1233 was designed to provide -- would prevent many long, drawn-out and painful deaths, weeks and even months of hospitalization tethered to tubes and wires, enduring painful treatments and experiencing at best a questionable quality of life. Section 1233 would have ameliorated the problem and helped us, as a society, move in the direction of honesty and compassion.

Parshat Pinchas tells us that God is Moses’ so-called “Death Panel” -- indeed, God does for Moses what we need compassionate professionals to do for the dying today. God apparently has a divine Section 1233:

The Lord said to Moses, “Ascend these heights of Avarim and view the land that I have given to the Israelite people. When you have seen it, you too shall be gathered to your kin, just as your brother Aaron was… (Numbers 27:12-13)

God is completely honest with Moses: he does not have much longer to live. God takes Moses up to the heights of Avarim not to torment him with the sight of the Land he will not enter, but rather to impress upon him the legacy he will leave. The Israelites Moses has loyally led for four decades will succeed in establishing a national life in the Land. Moses’ lifetime of efforts will bear sweet fruit.

God’s honesty and compassion open space for Moses to face his own death and
make preparations to turn over the reins to Joshua.

Moses spoke to the Lord, saying, “Let the Lord, Source of the breath of all flesh, appoint someone over the community who shall go out before them and come in before them, and who shall take them out and bring them in, so that the Lord’s community may not be like sheep that have no shepherd.” And the Lord answered Moses, “Single out Joshua son of Nun, an inspired man, and lay your hand upon him. Have him stand before Eleazar the priest and before the whole community, and commission him in their sight. Invest him with some of your authority, so that the whole Israelite community may obey. But he shall present himself to Eleazar the priest, who shall on his behalf seek the decision of the Urim before the Lord. By such instruction they shall go out and by such instruction they shall come in, he and all the Israelites, the whole community. (Numbers 27:15-23)

When the time comes for Moses to die, he will do so knowing that he has finished his mission here on earth, has tied up all the loose ends, and leaves a legacy of which he can be proud. His people are in good hands with Joshua; Moses has seen to that. Soon we will begin reading D’varim, the Book of Deuteronomy, in which Moses delivers a series of summing-up talks. These afford him the opportunity to review and evaluate his life, gift the Israelites with an oral ethical will, and exhort them to live up to their covenant with God as they make new lives for themselves in the Land of Israel.

Would that we could do this for everyone: help them arrive at the end of life with dignity and compassion, having reviewed and summed up, and knowing that they are passing on a legacy. Moses has all this because God operates by the values, principles, and priorities that inspired Section 1233 -- "Advance Care Planning Consultation." Each of us deserves the same dignity and compassion.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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