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Peter J. Rubinstein
The End of Two Lives

Peter J. Rubinstein  |  April 9, 2005

Throughout our history there has never been much difficulty dealing with the difficult matters of illness and aging and all those problematic and painful subjects which are part of the stuff of life. Though we might consider the discussion of disease in this week’s portion somewhat primitive we should be impressed that the entire process of life with all the blemishes and suppurations and ugly discolorations and bleedings with which we are sometimes afflicted are considered in our texts along with protocols suggested as to how they can be treated and how we might be healed.

Our ancestors always struggled with the cause of illness and the treatment of those who were ill. In the Torah and in today’s portion the theories of treatment involve quarantine and sacrifice. Priests were the practitioners and as you heard, strict regulations were promulgated to create a therapeutic structure as best as could be imagined.

And yet, as our ancestors knew, and as we know, there are times when despite our best attempts to heal, people die. And despite our most thoughtful attempts to explain the mechanics of illness, we are typically left with the ultimate questions of “why”, why should someone we love suffer, why should the young be afflicted, why do people die before old age and out of order, why should any parent bury a child.

These have always been essential questions, part of human existence, and significant aspects of every religious tradition.

Within the last weeks we have witnessed two episodes which compelled us to personally consider these matters of life and death and the ethics involved in both. Each of us, along with most of the world witnessed the tragic demise of Terry Schiavo. Then, along with members of the Catholic Church we learned of the noble death of Pope John Paul II.

Since this is the first Shabbat following the pope’s death and his funeral it is appropriate for us to pay witness to his incredible life and his great service to humankind. This pope was our religious brother.

As we have learned from his will, the text of which was released on Thursday, the Pope was acutely aware of the health challenges he faced as he was forcefully aware of the difficult times during which he presided as religious leader.

While we cannot decipher the entirety of his impact, history will do that, we Jews are mindful of the powerful role he took in reconciling the Church with the Jewish people. He spoke out forcefully against anti-Semitism and condemned it as a “sin against God.”. he was the first pope to visit a synagogue and in his last testament singled out Rabbi Toaff of Rome for having welcomed him. He established full diplomatic ties with the State of Israel and visited Israel and the Western Wall in 2000. When visiting Auschwitz, he knelt and talked of Jewish suffering and called on members of his Church to do repentance for their sins against the Jewish people.

And yes, we had disagreements with Pope John Paul II on many issues, but we always knew that this pope was a man of immeasurable character totally engaged in the human community and completely committed to bringing justice and dignity to the most down-trodden among us. I conveyed to Cardinal Egan our congregation’s prayers at this time of mourning for the pope with the hope that we continue to celebrate his memory through our work together for the best of community.

Even in his death the Pope demonstrated immeasurable dignity forgoing heroic efforts to prevent his death as he prepared to depart this world for the next world in which life continues. Thomas Lynch wrote today “Just as he showed us something about suffering and sickness and dying in his last days alive, in death Pope John Paul II showed us something about grieving and taking our leave.”

His memory will be a blessing.

The Pope’s death was in a way, the denouement of another demise, that of Terry Schiavo, may her soul now be at rest.

Sadly, her end, was not framed by the same dignity which accompanied the pope at the end.

The human dimension of Terry’s life was diminished by the shrapnel resulting from the war in her family and the detritus cast about by religious coalitions and our government which became unfortunately in a personal matter.

Putting aside our opinions on all peripheral matters the ultimate question raised by this circumstance was whether a feeding tube should be inserted or not or what to do when a feeding tube is in place. These are the questions that were at the heart of the debate: how does life end, what should one do when caring for someone you love, what would you want for yourself.

In an adult class this week I asked the attendees to tell me what factors they considered in coming to their conclusions regarding these very questions. I listed abut 20 of their responses on a board and upon reflection they noted what was entirely missing on that list were matters of faith, God, or Jewish tradition. These considerations did not show up at all. And yet these were the core matters that swirled about the combatants in the Schiavo case.

This is not the forum for questioning the integrity of the parties to the debate but it is an appropriate setting to raise the question of whether we, we liberal religionists, consider faith, Jewish teachings and our relationship to God when considering the most profound questions in our lives, the debate over life itself, its beginning or its end. I would hope and counsel that ethical humanism does not provide sufficient scope to these matters. Ultimately, we need to consider our place in this world and the place of life on this world in the continuum of life, which according to Jewish tradition, continues after this world. Ultimately we need to talk about the soul, distinct from the body, and the value of the soul and what happens to it when the body dies. Ultimately, I would hope that we take seriously our relationship to God and how our understanding of that relationship helps us consider the value of our life in all its manifestations. And ultimately I would hope that we Jews learn that there is value in learning from those sages in the past who thought about these matters during the long stretch of Jewish history.

We have been brought to attention by the unfolding of events during these last weeks. It is valuable moment for thinking about profound matters in ways we never considered before.. The portion we heard read this morning and the remarkable teachings of the B’not mitzvah this morning provided examples for taking our traditions seriously. We can make the celebration of this morning most relevant by learning from them how to address difficult questions seriously by confronting the teachings of our tradition.

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