THE DYING PATIENT.
Question. As a doctor I face human crises at both ends of life. One of the hardest challenges is treating the dying patient. Does Judaism have any advice for me?
Answer. Unlike some Christians, we do not regard death as greater than life nor feel that leaving this “vale of tears” is a triumph. We believe in life after death, but earthly existence is where one can really achieve things. Every stage of earthly life – up to the last moment – is a blessing.
In some cultures a dying person lost their value to society; Judaism said, “hagosses k’chai l’chol d’varav”, “the dying person is deemed alive in every respect”. We can break Shabbat to prolong a life even for a few minutes. If the “gosses” is “with it”, they have the full status of a person with emotional, intellectual, spiritual and social capabilities and are entitled to articulate their wishes and views.
Regardless of a patient’s condition, treatment must be continued. Who are we to play God and decide that a life no longer has any value, or to deny hope to anyone?
True, there is a time when artificial impediments to dying may be withheld, but this entails judging whether the patient is living or dying. A halachic rule says that if someone is dying and the noise of chopping wood is preventing the soul from departing, the noise should be stopped. There is a difficult boundary between living and dying. The benefit of the doubt should go to life.
Whenever I gave this advice, everyone felt relieved, though later there came a moment when death inexorably arrived.
FIRST-PERSON OR THIRD?
Question. The First and Second Commandments are in the first person (“I”) because God is speaking. Why is the third person (“He”) used thereafter?
Answer. The change comes in Ex. 20:7. It does not necessarily imply a change in speaker – someone else taking over in place of God – though a famous Midrashic explanation says that the Israelites found (verse 16) that it was too overwhelming for them to hear God’s own voice and they were frightened they would die, so they pleaded with Moses that he should be the Almighty’s spokesman.
BLINTZES ON SHAVU’OT
Question. Why do we have blintzes on Shavu’ot?
Answer. We read in Ezekiel 3:3, “Eat this scroll… like honey for sweetness”; blintzes are like little scrolls.
Why the cheese filling? Verse 4 says, “Speak My words to the Children of Israel”, and cheese reminds us that Torah is compared to milk – as milk is the basic physical nourishment of a human being, so is Torah the basic spiritual food.
The commentators regard Ezekiel as saying, “Digest the contents of this scroll and take them to heart”.
IS IT REALLY A COMMANDMENT?
The Ten Commandments are more famous than understood. The greatest difficulty for the human mind is probably Commandment Number 1.
“I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the Land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (Ex. 20:2) –
what sort of commandment is that?
The fact is that it doesn’t need to be a commandment at all if we go by the Hebrew title, “Aseret HaDib’rot” (Ten Words, Ten Principles). Nonetheless Maimonides includes this first statement in the list of commandments, though he admits that if a person believes in God no commandment is needed and if they do not believe, no commandment helps. Belief can not be imposed or legislated. You can order me to believe, but you are wasting your time unless my heart and soul have already freely chosen to believe.
We can defend Maimonides, however, if we move to the second part of the verse. “I am the Lord your God” is not saying, “Believe in My existence”, but “Believe that it was I who brought the Children of Israel out of Egypt”. The question is not whether God exists – that is axiomatic from page 1 of the Bible – but whether He relates to His creation.
The sages said that a Roman noblewoman asked,
“What has your God being doing since the six days of Creation?”
In other words,
“Is God only in the background or does He do anything for His world?”
The rabbi to whom she posed the question said that God busies Himself making marriages, i.e. He concerns Himself with relationships. We believe not just that He is, but that it is He who is in charge of the world.
Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, and was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesperson for Jews and Judaism on the Australian continent. Now retired and lives in Jerusalem.