“How to Die” By Rabbi Beth Beyer, RN, MS, JD
From chasidic writers to hospice workers, there is a notion called, “a good death.” This seems to imply a death with dignity and without excessive pain. However, there are those who actually consider dying a mitzvah to be done with thought and intention. Perhaps it’s a bit chutzpahdik to write about “how” to do something while never having actually experienced it completely myself (unless one counts a near-death-experience), yet my hope is to provide some insight for the journey which all of us must face.
Judaism certainly values life, yet, there is an inevitable call by the Malach HaMavet (Angel of Death), which is inescapable, with the exception of a few notables, such as Elijah. Some of our Sages resorted to trickery to avoid the pain of death. For example, Rabbi Joshua asked the Malach to show him his place in paradise. The Malach agreed to take him there. Rabbi Joshua asked to hold the Malach’s knife so it would not frighten him on the way. When they arrived, Rabbi Joshua leaped over the wall into paradise, but the Malach could not follow. He was allowed to stay, but had to return the knife. Ket. 77b. That strategy only worked once, because when Rabbi Pappa asked to hold the knife, the Malach refused. However, the Malach did allow him an extra thirty days of life to put his affairs in order.
At the time of death the Kotzker was surrounded by his disciples and grieving family. He asked for some strong drink to wish a L’chayim (toast to life). He explained that “If G-d has willed my death, I am now performing G-ds will and it is proper to do so in a joyous spirit.” With the same rationale, another recorded custom is that certain saintly individuals calmly washed their hands before dying, as one would do preparing for a ritual. Beit Lechem Yehudah to Yoreh De’ah 338:1 in Lamm, N. “The Religious Thought of Hasidism.” YU Press, 1999, p. 490.
In another example, Rabbi Abraham Kook said of when his righteous ancestor Rabbi Isaac Katz (one of the Besht’s disciples) lay upon his deathbed he said, “Is it not written, ‘and she laughs at the last day’” (a verse from Proverbs 31:25)? So, in a spirit of joy, he asked for Shabbat candles to be lit and for musicians to play and sing to accompany his soul on its journey. Id.
In a drash on Beresheet (Genesis) from Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech of Dinov, he explains that “duty” of dying was incumbent upon Adam who was told that he must surely die (Gen. 2:17). It was a commandment given, not merely a prediction. As humans, we are also commanded. Since it is a mitzvah, one must invest one’s dying with kavanah (intention), and even as one does with other commandments – be joyful. Id. May the Holy One grant us the ability to carry such a positive attitude whenever our time to meet the Malach HaMavet arrives.
Rabbi ElizaBeth Beyer, R.N., M.S.N., M.S.J.S., M.R.S., J.D.
Rabbi Beth Beyer serves as spiritual leader for two synagogues. She is the founding rabbi of Temple Beth Or, Reno, which is dedicated to experiencing G-d, encouraging music, text study and promoting Jewish learning. For the past two years, she also serves as the rabbi at North Tahoe Hebrew Congregation. Her background includes working as a registered nurse, an attorney, mediator, and judge. She taught ethics at the University of Nevada, Reno and was the past Department Chair for Health Care Ethics at the Nevada Center of Ethics & Health Policy. She was ordained by the Academy for Jewish Religion in CA, received a Master’s Degree in Rabbinic Studies, a Master’s Degree in Jewish Studies from Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies, a Master’s Degree in Psychiatric Nursing from University of Maryland and law degree from the Nevada School of Law. She is licensed to practice law in Nevada. She is married to Dr. Tom Beyer, DC, a chiropractor. Rabbi Beyer has a strong commitment to working within the Jewish community and also working with interfaith groups.
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The next course will be November 28th, December 5th, and December 12th. We will continue to look at death as seen in the Zohar, taught by Beth Huppin.
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The next course in the cycle of core courses offered by the Gamliel Institute will be Course 4 – Nechama/Comfort. It will be offered online during the Fall from October 9th to December 25th on Tuesday evenings, for 90 minutes each week for 12 weeks. The classes will begin at 5 pm PST/8 pm EST. Primary instructors will be Dan Fendel, Edna Stewart, with other guest instructors.
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The course planned for Winter 2019 is Course 2 – Chevrah Kadisha: Taharah & Shmirah.
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Please note: this blog depends on you for content. Without you it cannot publish new material. If you have an idea for an entry you would like to submit to this blog, please be in touch. Email J.firstname.lastname@example.org. We are always interested in original unpublished materials that would be of interest to our readers, relating to the broad topics surrounding the continuum of Jewish preparation, planning, rituals, rites, customs, practices, activities, and celebrations approaching the end of life, at the time of death, during the funeral, in the grief and mourning process, and in comforting those dying and those mourning, as well as the actions and work of those who address those needs, including those serving in Bikkur Cholim, Caring Committees, the Chevrah Kadisha, as Shomrim, funeral providers, in funeral homes and mortuaries, and operators and maintainers of cemeteries.