By Rabbi Moshe Meir Weiss
Recently, the world mourned the passing of former First Lady, Barbara Bush. There was a lot to mourn. She was married happily for seventy-three years which alone deserves our standing up and applauding her. She married her first kiss which is also admirable. She proudly visited Israel and empathetically visited Auschwitz. But, I am gravely concerned, as it pertains to Torah Jewry, of the example she set with her passing. She made a worldwide proclamation that she was opting for “comfort care.” She was fully cognizant – as was widely reported – with a bourbon and a cellphone, and she calmly announced that she was dispensing with additional medical treatment and will go the route of “comfort care” alone. Comfort care is a sinister euphemism. It usually means (although not necessarily so in Mrs. Bush’s case, as the words comfort care are ambiguous) dispensing with blood transfusions, blood draws, T.P.N., and other life-prolonging treatments, concentrating on making the patient as “comfortable” as possible.
We must know that in most cases in Torah law such behavior is absolutely prohibited. In Hilchos Shabbos [siman 328], the Biur Halacha by the saintly Chofetz Chaim, zt”l, zy”a, writes that if someone was buried by an avalanche and is badly mutilated to the point that he will only live chayei sha’ah, a short amount of time, we still take heroic measures and desecrate the Shabbos on his behalf. Even to prolong a life for a few moments is worthwhile for in those moments one can repent and repair their eternity (Meiri). Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, zy”a, in Igros Moshe, Choshen Mishpat [2:78-7], writes that even if one is elderly and says that he is disgusted with life and wants to be left to die, one should not even contemplate withholding medical treatment. Contrast this to what one of the national groups proclaimed about Mrs. Bush’s decision, “Of course one wants to live more but there comes a time when one can say it’s enough.” Elsewhere in that siman, Rav Moshe states categorically that even if one is suffering, it is forbidden to deny the person food – even intravenously – and he writes the suffering will be a great boon for the person when they get to the Next World. I mention this because I am frightened that the national consciousness of modern society, which is holding meetings – as we speak – about doctor assisted suicide, should not seep into our communities.
My Rebbetzin, Of Blessed Memory, started having powerful pain in September, 2015. In November, 2015, she was given the dreaded diagnosis of inoperable pancreatic cancer with metastasis to the liver. One doctor said she had six weeks to live. Sloan-Kettering gave her an “outside shot” of eight months. Before Pesach of that year, when she was hospitalized in Maimonides Hospital with a devastating stool infection, I could hear the nurses talking amongst themselves of how she would never get out alive. She would live to see four new grandchildren and, this past Labor Day, walk down our last child, Rena Tzivia, with me to the chuppah and dance the night away. She lived to make thousands of brachos, do hundreds of acts of chesed, and make countless acts of Kiddush Hashem. But, it took thirty-two chemotherapies of seven different cocktails, and the superhuman effort of her family and friends, together with her wonderful Doctors, Dr. Azriel Hirschfeld and Dr. Yitzchok Kurtzer, to help her through this journey. I vividly remember the hospital trying to convince me about the benefits of “comfort care.” With our children and grandchildren becoming busier and busier with their own lives, if we don’t educate them in the value of every minute of life, it will be tempting for them to say, “I can’t watch my loved one suffer. Just make them comfortable.” We must know that that’s not our way.
Two weeks before my Rebbetzin passed away, more than two years after her diagnosis, she had an oxygen saturation level that was barely human. Hatzolah told me to be prepared for her passing within the hour. I held her hand for the next twelve hours telling her that Chanukah was the next night and that I hoped to light the menorah by her bed and make a She’hechianu on the menorah and on her. And that is exactly what happened. Then, on the second day of Chanukah, our daughter Devora gave us a new grandchild who we named Chaya, celebrating that Mommy was still alive. She rallied and started talking again, she sang Maoz Tzur and gave baby Chaya a bracha for arichas yomim, long life.
What was right for Barbara Bush is not what’s right for us. Although every case is certainly different and one must consult a very knowledgeable rabbi for end of life guidance, I’m writing this article so that you should know: Firstly, a diagnosis is not always right and, secondly, fight for every moment of life for the mitzvah of v’chai bahem, to live by them, is so great that it supersedes the Shabbos and Yom Kippur and almost every other mitzvah in the Torah.
For giving all that we have to our loved ones, may Hashem bless us all with long life, good health, and everything wonderful.
Please learn, give tzedaka, and daven l’iluy nishmas of Miriam Liba bas Aharon.
Sheldon Zeitlin takes dictation of, and edits, Rabbi Weiss’s articles.
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