Selected Sermon/Article
2001-02-02 Bo by Rav Ze'ev Smason
Every Precious Moment

I'd like to speak to you today about a very serious topic; Euthanasia -- mercy killing. It's a topic that comes up far too often, and one that has a connection to the Torah portions we've been reading in the book of Exodus.

The beginning of the book of Shemos carries with it the undercurrent of politics, as the Midrash relates a discussion that took place between Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, and 3 chosen advisors; Bilaam, Job, and Yisro. It seems that Pharaoh had selected a cabinet for 'Jewish Affairs', and presented his 3 cabinet members with his plan for the death and subjugation of the Jewish people.

Bilaam, the Midrash relates, whole heartedly endorsed Pharaohs plan. Job's response was -- he remained silent, while Yisro, the Midrash concludes, ran away. The 3 advisors of Pharoah were dealt with appropriately by God. Yisro was rewarded by being given a pretty fair son-in-law -- a fellow by the name of Moshe Rabbanu. Bilaam was punished for his support of Pharaohs' plan, by being killed by the sword. Job, because he remained silent, was punished with the sufferings that have come to be known by his name; 'the sufferings of Job.'

Why, Rabbi Chaim Shmulevitz asks, did Job appear to get the worse punishment then Bilaam? Bilaam, who died a swift, relatively painless death, seems to have been much better off then Job who suffered terribly -- yet, only remained silent rather than actively supporting the evil plan of Pharaoh. What, precisely, is the lesson that this Midrash is coming to teach us?

In November of last year, the Dutch Parliament voted to allow doctors to help end the lives of seriously ill patients who have asked to die. The bill made the Netherlands the first country to legalize mercy killings and doctor assisted suicides, practices that are already in wide use, though technically a crime. As a rabbi, I can tell all of you here today that the premature ending of the lives of critically and terminally ill patients takes place in St. Louis on a regular basis. A book was published several years ago titled 'Final Exit,' detailing home-applied methods of suicide. Tens of thousands of copies of this book were sold; not all, I suspect, were bought by simple curiosity seekers.

Stating the case for a 'Gentle Way to Die', freelance writer Katie Lyle wrote in Newsweek (1992),

"I don't like the conclusion I'm forced to. But is a gentle death for a human being always the worst answer? It seems patently untrue to me that any life is always preferable to no life. I find it disgraceful, as well as ironic, that we cannot bring ourselves to treat our fellow humans as humanely as we treat our pets (in putting them to sleep)."

Is there a point where quality of life allows rabbis, doctors patients and family members to pull the proverbial plug? Are we in a position to measure and quantify 'quality of life,' and determine that individuals are no longer 'productive members of society'? How does the Torah respond to the statement of former Colorado Governor Richard Lamm who, in a moment of brutal frankness once said;

"[The elderly] have a duty to die and get out of the way...and let the other society, our kids, build a reasonable life."

While we should do all we can to improve the 'Quality of Life' of the ill and aged, a concern for 'Quality of Life' should never supersede our concern for 'Equality of Life.'

Life, be it for 120 years or a split second is of infinite value. Killing a child who might live a full life, as opposed to ending the life of a 100 year old person whom Eliyahu himself testifies has only a few moments left to live, would both be acts of murder. The Minchas Chinuch writes in such a case that;

"Even if the victim were about to die anyway, the killer is a murderer because life has been curtailed -- even if only by a second."

To return to our original question, we can perhaps better understand the seeming inequity between the swift merciful death of Bilaam, and the bitter pain and suffering that Job was afflicted with.

The answer is that our shallow understanding of the value of human life does not allow us to understand God's verdict. If we had a true appreciation of life's essence, and that every single moment of life is of infinite value, we'd see that Job's punishment was by far the easier of the two. It's true he suffered greatly; but he lived. Bilaam was spared suffering but put to death. Better a thousand times pain, Rabbi Shumlevitz says, than the 'merciful' death of Bilaam.

A rabbi I know related the the story of the occasion that he visited a terminally ill woman in the hospital, on Shabbos. She was semi-comatose, unresponsive to anything he said, and he saw from her charts that she didn't appear to have much time left on this earth. As he turned to leave the room, and wished the woman a 'Gut Shabbos', the rabbi was shocked to hear the softly uttered words of 'Gut Shabbos' come from the woman he had come to visit. The rabbi pointed out that since even the saying of the words 'Good Shabbos' constitute a fullfillment of the 4th commandment 'Remember the Sabbath', it was particularly remarkable that a person who's life at this point would appear to have little or no meaning, was still able to fulfill a fundamental command of the Torah.

I'd like to conclude with the following quote from Dr. Leo Alexander, chief medical consultant to the prosecution at the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal;

"Whatever proportions these crimes finally assumed, it becomes evident to all who investigated them that they started from small beginnings, (which) at first were merely a subtle shift in the basic attitude of physicians. It started with the attitude, based in the euthanasia movement, that there is such a thing as life not worthy to be lived."

Every life is a life worthy to be lived, and every moment of life -- as difficult and as pain ridden as it might be -- is infinitely precious. Let us all appreciate the wonderful gift of life we've been given, and rejoice in the precious moments God grants us.

Good Shabbos