Schoenfeld: Reflections on Dying

Schoenfeld: Reflections on Dying

Tzadok Hadin: Eugen Schoenfeld

By Eugen Schoenfeld

My telephone rang early Monday morning. I was already up and waiting for the call. I picked up the receiver and asked my daughter at the other end: “Is mother still alive?” “No, she died earlier.” “I am coming right away.” Although I had known that there was a great probability that my wife would die that night but after having been at hospice all day looking at my unconscious wife sedated by morphine and other drugs I decided to drive home and get some rest. I hurriedly dressed and grabbed my siddur and kipoh and was on my way.

It was four weeks since she was diagnosed with incurable lymphoma and I was constantly struggling with the question: what shall I do when she departs? Two days earlier I stood in front of her already unconscious body and with the rabbi chanting the viduy, the confessional service “Oshamnoo” –  we have trespassed, we have dealt treacherously, and so on. And now she has passed away what do I do now?

What should I do to relieve my pain?  How can I gain solace of having lost my wife, my love and my comfort for sixty five years? She helped me overcome my Holocaust experiences and the pain of the loss of my family. It seemed reasonable to me that I should follow my people’s traditions, to turn to my traditions of the Jewish past and seek comfort in the rituals my father, my mother, and millions of Jews before them performed to find solace when parents and spouses died.

When I entered the hospice room I gathered my daughters about me, opened my old sidur,my often used prayer book and turned to the prayers associated with the rituals of dying. I began to recite the Tzadok Hadin . Both the confessional and the Tzadok Hadin have one common denominator, they propose that death is G-d’s judgment. After all, this view is clearly central in the High Holiday payers, don’t we ask for G-d’s mercy on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur when He judges us? Don’t we seek his forgiveness for our sins and for Him to be merciful and write our name in the book of life? And yet, G-d seemed to have disregarded and decreed that my wife Heintze the daughter of Avrom Yehuda is to die. What were her sins? She never turned away from her identity, she was good, kind, and loving.

Early on in my childhood I was introduced to the idea of G-d as the universal judge. In my mind’s eye I remember the image from which this idea generated. There up in heaven resides G-d, that stern old man with a flowing white beard, sitting on his throne in front of which stood a very large scale and two ministering angels were loading the evidence on the scale. In the receptacle on the one arm of the scale the avenging angel loaded all my sins and on the other receptacle at the end of the other arm of the scale the defending angel loaded all my good deeds – my mitzvoth. Which side is heavier? Are good deeds, my mitzvoth heavier than my aveyroth my evil deeds, my sins, and will G-d inscribe me in the book of good life?

With my daughters I stood before my wife’s remains and declared: Blessed is the true judge. The Lord has given and the Lord has taken away, blessed is the name of the Lord forever.  I accept and I justify G-d’s decree and I further declared: Blessed is G-d, King of the universe who created man in judgment who gave nourishment and sustenance through judgment and brings death unto us through judgment…

I looked down at the motionless cold body of my wife who for sixty five years and in spite of my flaws loved me and who was the source of my solace and comfort in times of need;  and I think who now will hold my hand and comfort me in my present sorrow? Now at my time of extreme sorrow I recite the words that for millennia supposedly provided comfort to my people. I turned to the old image of G-d who through his prophet declared: Comfort ye, comfort ye my people but my pain is still intense and to top it off my tradition accuses her of having died because of her sins. What sins? Is her death a mitah bidey shamayim – adeath brought on by heavenly judgment and decree? At that moment I rejected this age old faulty belief.

I find one significant flaw with this perception is inherent in its faulty logic. Since all human beings die, it should therefore follow that all human being die because of their sins. Is there a common denominator that ipso facto causes all people to die? Do we believe in a universal human sin that brings about the death of all people? Do we also advocate something like that Christian doctrine of original sin? Are we still punished for Adam’s desire to know and understand? Is G-d still jealous because Adam sought to gain knowledge and become G-d like?

I cannot and will not accept such an illogical idea, the idea that death is a punishment. Surely my brother at the age of thirteen and my sister at the age of ten who were killed in Auschwitz hadn’t had time to commit any sin rooted in their own conscious free will. This is even truer in the case of my youngest cousin Shalom who was killed at the age of six month. And while we on the subject, my wife has never committed any wrong that even human standards, let alone by a supposed merciful G-d, deserved to die. I must unequivocally declare: Death is not a punishment; it is not decreed in heaven. Death is a natural event and shared both by living and even non living things. To me, Rabbi Amnon of Mayence’s idea whose liturgy is considered central to the Mussaf Service and which includes the idea of the existence of a book of life and death is a total fallacy the result of ignorance.

Throughout my adult life I fought against the human desire to anthropomorphize G-d.  For when we reduce G-d to human level – we also declare that men created G-d in their image. When we do this we bring Him down to our human level instead of elevating Him. When we recite the Kaddish we are told to “yitaleh” to declare that G-d is transcendental to human being and even the universe. I believe that this is what Maimonides proposed in the third principle of faith by declaring that G-d is free from all properties of matter. More importantly at the time of creation He already set the order and the laws by which the universe functions. The poet who wrote the first verse in the ma’ariv (the evening) prayer seeks to describe this idea – albeit in a very primitive manner. Birth and death are a part of the universal order. Human beings like the stars themselves are born and they die – hence the statement in Pirkey Avot: Without our will we are born and without our will we will die.  Yes, our future is written down in a book, a different kind of book, our future is encrypted in our genome. My cousin Gus who was dean of the medical school at Washington University said: If you want to have a long life? Get for yourself parents who had longevity and to this I wish to add and lead a healthy life and a good physician. As time goes by we will continually improve our longevity. The quality of life on the other hand is not in the stars nor in heaven – they are in our hands and will.

Let me hasten to add: It is not my intent to take G-d out of the dying process. Dying was ordained by G-d to be a part of life and the natural laws and processes. In Ecclesiastics we are told that one generation goes and another comes a truism that holds for all living (and perhaps even on non living) things. Death and change is a universal constant. We know why some people die earlier than others. Some die early or late because it is a part of their genetic heritage. Some die because of poverty and the lack of medical availability. Some die because they misuse their life and some die because they wish to die. But no one dies because he or she is judged and found wanting. True, G-d gave us the laws through which we could improve our lives. But dying is universal all of us will leave this world and cause pain for those whom we leave. But G-d also installed into us a cure and it is our capability to forget. Let us not be concerned on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur with the book of life – with the question of who shall live and who shall die. Instead let us concentrate more on how to achieve a better life for most of us – for that is in our power. War and peace is not in the hands of G-d. They are human products and hence our responsibility. Let that be the essence of the High Holidays.

Close to the end of her life my wife asked me: “Why must I die now when our life is so good?” It would have been false for me to tell her that it is G-d’s decision. To blame it G-d’s judgment is a copout.  I gave her my best answer “Honey,” I told her “we have fulfilled our mission. We raised our children, we enjoyed our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren and now we must make room for new generation. For in the end it is simply –birth and death are two ends of the same equation established by G-d and the whole universe is subject to that equation.

Eugen Schoenfeld, a professor and chair emeritus at Georgia State University and a survivor of the Holocaust, will be speaking at Shema Yisrael during the High Holidays.

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