Torah portion: That precious moment

Parashat Ha’azinu (Deuteronomy 32:1-52)\n
September 24, 2015

When I was pregnant with my daughter, some two decades ago, I fell in love with the idea of a natural childbirth, one without drugs or surgery. I read testimonials from women who described their natural deliveries that were followed by a beautiful time of bonding together with their new babies. I wanted that. I practiced relaxation techniques with my birthing coach to get ready for the big day. 

My delivery went differently. I had three days of inconsistent pains, then 36 hours of nonproductive active labor. Finally, the doctor said, “It’s time. Allow us to do surgery or you may die.” So out came the drugs and the knives. By the time I saw my daughter, I felt like I had survived a train wreck. We were both alive, and I had gone “natural” as long as I could. But my dream of bonding with my baby right after birth was not to be. 

This experience came to mind this week as I thought about Ha’azinu, Moses’ swan song, in this week’s parsha. The prophet’s last days unfold so gently, giving him much time to address his people and their leaders with his concerns and wishes for them. It is just the perfect final scene.

Reading things like this, and seeing so many deaths in movies and on TV, we might think that a conscious death, where we speak coherently right until our last breath, is ahead for each of us, when the time comes. We will be able to say our farewells to loved ones, to issue our final statement about life, and then close our eyes and surrender to the forces that be — what philosopher Martin Buber terms “redemption” in his book “Israel and the World: Essays in a Time of Crisis”:

“In his personal life, probably not one of us will taste the essence of redemption before his last hour. … When our soul hovers over the frail trap door which, at the next instant, may send us down into destruction … suddenly we feel a touch of a hand. It reaches down to us, it wishes to be grasped — and yet what incredible courage is needed to take this hand, to let it draw us up out of the darkness. This is redemption.”

What a satisfying thought, that at the moment of death we will be able to choose to reach out to God, and be pulled into the World to Come. It will take courage, of course, but it will be an option. 

My hope that this will be the case for me is tinged with doubt, however, echoing the disappointment I feel about my daughter’s birth, because the odds are very slim that any of us will die in such a way anymore. It may have been the case in times past, but today, with modern medical interventions adding decades to our lives, people rarely die with their full mental faculties intact, and able to communicate their wishes and choose their own path to God. 

Rather, we die from things like repeated bouts of cancer, successive strokes and, especially, advancing dementia, leaving us a shadow of our former selves for months or even years. One in three seniors today has dementia by the time of death, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. The Centers for Disease Control ranks Alzheimer’s disease, one form of dementia, as the fifth-leading cause of death in people over 65. Most of the conditions on the top 10 list can be prevented or cured, but there isn’t a thing that can be done for mental decline — it can’t be prevented, cured or even slowed. 

To make things worse, doctors are reluctant to tell patients they have Alzheimer’s. According to one study, less than half of patients with the disease had been told about the diagnosis. Doctors said they thought people would rather not know, or were afraid that the information might make patients depressed or commit suicide. 

But 89 percent of Americans say they want to know if they have dementia. And when researchers asked families that knew about a diagnosis how this information affected them, they said it gave them peace of mind to know what was happening with their loved one; and it allowed them to improve their loved one’s care and to plan for the future. 

To lose our faculties long before death is to die twice, a hardship that is cruel for our loved ones, but even more so for ourselves and our eternal souls. Only by knowing we are losing ourselves can we proactively seek closure with our loved ones and redemption from God while we still have the capacity to do so. 

I saw a documentary about a courageous woman who followed a terminal diagnosis with a big house party, so all her friends and family could gather to share their goodbyes and regrets, well before her decline made it difficult. What might seem awkward at the time becomes, in retrospect, true redemption. This, I think, is what Ha’azinu would have looked like if Moses had lived in an era when closure and death came in sepa-rate blows.

Rabbi Avivah W. Erlick, BCC, is a health care chaplain in private practice and an agent for other clergy (LAcommunitychaplaincy.com). She offers innovative home ritual for Jewish hospice families (sacred-waters.com), a topic she examines in a book she co-authored, “Exploring the Soul of Taharah.”

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