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
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
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
"[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
"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.