Yom Shabbat, 23 Av 5779
Saturday, 24 August 2019
Parashat Ha'azinu 5776

Rabbi Margaret Jacobi
25th September 2015

Haazinu, this week’s Sidra, is a long song which is said to be Moses’ last address to the Children of Israel. It is quite an achievement to be able to give such a long address at the age of 120! ·But then, as the concluding chapter of the book of Deuteronomy tells us, ‘his eyes were not dimmed and his natural force not abated.’ ··Moses had what we would all wish for - an old age in which he retained his vigor and his mental faculties until the end.

Sadly, this is not possible for everyone. There are those, whether advanced in age or still young, for whom the end of life is painful and difficult. ·They may suffer from pain or from the loss of their physical abilities or their mental faculties. For them, the prospect of facing a life of pain and loss of dignity sometimes feels more than they can bear. That is why some chose to go abroad to end their lives by assisted suicide and why a bill to permit assisted suicide was recently presented before Parliament. ··The bill was defeated but the questions remain. ·Jews - and rabbis - are divided on the issue, with some feeling that permitting assisted suicide would create to many ethical dilemmas whilst others feel that it would be a compassionate act to allow people who are suffering incurable illness to end their lives.

Judaism is a religion that values life. ·Rabbi John Rayner has written: ‘From year to year the need becomes more urgent for a religion that teaches reverence for life a its highest principle. Judaism is such a religion. .... Judaism is a religion which teaches that ·to destroy a single life is to destroy and entire world, and to sustain a single life is to sustain an entire world.’ ·Such reverence for life led the former Chief Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovitz to argue that since human life was of infinite value, every second of that life was also of infinite value and therefore it was wrong to shorten life by even a few minutes and that one should not administer pain-killing drugs if they shortened life. ·Most authorities do not take such a view, but still strongly oppose euthanasia or assisted suicide. ·The Conservative scholar Elliot Dorff, who is generally liberal in his outlook, argues: ‘Even though Jewish law... goes quite far in permitting terminally ill patients to die with whatever palliative care they need and without any further medical interference, it doe not permit suicide or assisted suicide. The tradition bids us maintain a firm line between legitimately withholding and with-drawing medical efforts on the one hand and illegitimately helping a person actively to take his or her own life on the other. To fail to maintain that distinction would violate Jewish law and destroy creatures belonging to God.’

On the other hand, Judaism does not advocate pain and suffering, and it is not in the spirit of Jewish law to prolong a situation in which some one is suffering. When Rabbi Hananiah ben Teradion was being burnt to death by the Romans, and they prolonged his agony by placing wads of wet cotton on him, the soldier who enabled him to die more quickly was granted a place in the world to come.

The issues are complex and it is not easy to come up with legal solutions to such a complex moral problem. ·Judaism teaches us to value of life and there is no greater than mitzvah than to save a life. ·But, as John Rayner puts it, ‘We know that God does not wish us to live for ever, and we also know that, being compassionate, God would not wish us to suffer excessively.’

At this time of year, our thoughts are very much focused on life. ·The prayer which we recite on these days of awe is zochreinu l’hayyim - remember us for life, our Sovereign who delights in life.’ ·We would all wish to be blessed with good lives, lived to the fill and into old age, and that like Moses, ·we may be granted strength and vigour. ·But that is not always possible. ·As we pray on Yom Kippur to be remembered for life, let us remember what a precious gift our life is, so that as we wrestle with the the difficult issues of the end of life, we may be guided by compassion ·and we may work for a time when all lives may reach their fulfilment, so that the ancient prayer may be fulfilled: ‘Kotveinu besefer hahayim tovim - May we be written in the book of life for good.’

 

Click here to read more about Rabbi Jacobi's involvement with the campaign for Birmingham to accept refugees from Syria.