vilk3“A Pill of Fear: On Killing and Compassion”

Rabbi Shlomo Vilk

The keys to three of Hashem’s treasure houses were not placed in the hands of any agent, states Rabbi Yochanan in the Babylonian Talmud (Taanit 2:1), The keys to rain, childbirth and resurrection of the dead are held by Hashem alone. For a long time now, we have ourselves taken all three. We can desalinize water and help previously barren women to give birth and we can lengthen life indefinitely. In fact, one key that was given to us is the key of death, the  most important one of all. The key of creating life was not given to us because if we lived forever and could rescue the dead from She’ol, then life would be insignificant, without meaning and without value. The key of death was given to us, not so that we could take life but rather so that we could live. The key of death that was given to us is a key of mesirut nefesh – the key that is willing to suffer and to give up its life for God or morality. The key of death is a key of struggle for life, since it is death that commands life and the goals for which an individual is willing to die define life. Thus, the Sages in Tractate Tamid 32 A said to Alexander the Great that in order to live one must be willing to die and in order to die one must cling to life at any price. This gemara was quoted knowingly or unknowingly by Dr. Martin Luther King in his speech in Detroit (June 23, 1963) when he said: “A man who won’t die for something is not fit to live” and perhaps everyone learned from Socrates who said: “A man who lives his life with good judgment and justice should not fear death” (Phaedo).
Jews have never been happy to die, but the willingness to give up one’s life made Jewish life into a life of creativity and holiness and dedication of a man to his fellow man and a man to his calling. Our Gentile neighbors are happy to die, in their belief that a heroic death is preferable over life, while we believe that life is preferable over death. We already knew from the moment that the nation was born that the punishment for breaking the Sabbath is death; however, this was only in order to tell us that the Sabbath is more important than life and that it is worth living for and therefore saving life overrides the Sabbath that is more important than life!
These are new times. The nations of the world have given up on death and made the key of life the most important thing and have brought angst and lack of meaning to their people. Many Jews have followed them. They have forgotten that Jewish mesirut nefesh was always a reason for life and gave up on the value of mesirut nefesh for the sake of life. And surprisingly, the value of life has been lost. There isn’t anything to die for or what to live for.
Depression increases as life lengthens. Young people are idle, whether willingly or unwillingly; they know that they have long years of meaningless life ahead of them. The value against which a young person is measured is GNP; this is the value by which a country is measured. And it has become, unfortunately, the value by which an individual measures himself.
And now we have arrived at the climax. The key of death has become the pill of death and mesirut nefesh has become an unwillingness to bear the pain of life. It was our president, Mr. Shimon Peres, who eulogized Amnon Shahak z”l, former Chief of Staff of the I.D.A, by saying that Shahak persevered in the battlefield and against cancer but that death had defeated him. His words symbolize in my opinion the destruction of the human values that Judaism knows how to define better than anyone else in the world. Shahak, who administered chemotherapy to himself in his car while he was Chief of Staff and who invited his friends to his deathbed to bid farewell and to give them good advice, defeated death since he never feared death and commanded us to live in his death. But the President, who at every ceremony explains that the fallen have commanded us to live, does not really believe that. He believes that life is defeated by suffering and death and does not understand that death defeats only those whom are afraid of it. It beats those who are afraid of the angel of death and who become their own angel of death.
Four years ago, my sister was on her deathbed. Several years before that, it was my mother. The divine liquids of life flowed into them through needles of morphine and tubes for IV infusion and chemotherapy. This is how God chose to show his compassion in their most difficult moments and they were clear-headed and suffered incredible pain, did not flinch and defeated death because the main task of the angel of death is to scare us, just like every terrorist out there. And they were not scared.
We are told that the pill of death is not used by many, but no one can measure the spiritual damage to a society that teaches its members that in the dark tunnel of life, one can give up hope and capitulate. And how many have capitulated? And how many will live a life of fear? And how will we relate to old age and suffering and who will still show mercy? And who will still agree to give up their lives, to look death in the eye and resist it, in the belief that only the fear of death is evil, not death and suffering itself.
And how do they dare, those who are romantic about death, to say that the life of person who is on his deathbed is not worth living? How are caregivers meant to relate to those who will not choose the pill? How are we to teach our children to volunteer in Zichron Menahem or in organizations that help the elderly and the sick, when society is disgusted by them and calls them “contemptible”? Someone who encourages another to commit suicide is pitiful and in providing that possibility the family of the dying person is relating to him with contempt, not with mercy. And what if the caregivers feel that the dying person is a burden and that taking care of him increases the contemptibility of his life and medical expenditure?
I don’t want to suffer and I prefer to die peacefully in my bed when the time comes. I don’t want to lengthen my suffering with unnecessary treatments. Nonetheless, if God chooses to end my life in such an awful manner, I hope that those around me will comfort me and will give me strength and hope. I hope that they will not view in my last breaths a life of wretchedness and helplessness but rather as moments of strength, that they should not see fear and not show fear, but rather determination. And even if I break down and prefer death, they will tell me of their love and compassion. They will speak words of comfort and will give me the strength to deal with the angel that gave meaning to my 120 years of life – the angel of death.
I write these words at the swearing-in ceremony of the Kfir Battalion at the Western Wall. One of my students took an oath to give his life for the Jewish people, not in order to be hurt in the army, God forbid, but rather to devote his days and nights, to give his blood, sweat and tears to the Jewish people and to the Land of Israel. Certainly, the transition from the moshav and the yeshiva to army life will be difficult for Ofer – to obey orders, to train and to charge when the order is given. Ofer is doing it because he was taught that life is so important because of the potential within it, because he knows that without the sacrifice, his life and the lives of those dear to him would be empty. A large part of enlightened society, which believe in living with respect and without suffering, have not been in the army for a long time – they are hardly in the country at all. Most of their friends, so they say at every opportunity, take drugs in order to escape from the drudgery and to blunt the pain from the absence of pain. Now, he is being offered the ultimate escape from the pain of life.
The State of Israel has joined the enlightened nations on their path to nullifying man and life. The era of man is ending with a whimper, with the pill of death that makes suffering unnecessary and the fight for life unnecessary. In the end, we will be whole, healthy, carefree and full of life and anyone who dares not be happy, beautiful and rich will receive a pill of death and will be sent to his death, accompanied by his family’s and to the death of a society that has lost its way.
Jews do not say She-Hecheyanu on suffering and death, but rather accept their fate. We do not rejoice in a life of suffering and the halacha even allows one to pray for a sick person to die (Nedarim 50 A and the discussion of the commentators resulting from the gemara), and certainly does not want to lengthen the life of an individual that is suffering without hope. However, we believe that suffering differentiates man from an animal. Not just the man who knows how to bear his suffering proudly but also his neighbor who knows how to stand by him and help him with his pain. At the moment that the State was created and social responsibility was shifted from one’s neighbor to National Insurance, form solidarity to bureaucracy, we lost our compassion.  Now the State wants to remove the last remnants of love and compassion, to remove the suffering and the awful pain and essentially to tell the weak and the sick that we can’t bear their suffering and we aren’t interested in making their lives easier. That is the truth – it isn’t that the sick cannot bear their suffering, but that we, with our sensitive souls, want to remove the suffering from our midst – the sensitive soul of a hangman.
In Switzerland, which is envied by some of the Israeli legislators, anyone is permitted to kill himself, as long as he is aware of what he is doing. That will be our next step, without a doubt, since this miserable lie is not just the lot of the terminally ill but of many others as well. The will to live is basic in nature and we are eroding it by suggesting ways for people to escape it. Once we were shocked by the Eskimo custom of sending old people to their death (I don’t know if this was really so) but today we send our own loved ones to their death.
I am horrified at the thought of a family sitting shiv’a after giving a loved one this pill of death. This is not just about the suicide victim but also those who took the life of their father, mother or sister and then sit shiva for them. It seems to me that none of our halachic authorities every gave a ruling regarding a son sitting shiva over his father after intentionally killing him and now the devil has found an even worse act to defeat us – a son sending his father to die and sitting shiva for a father who committed suicide.
Rabbi Shlomo Vilk is the Rosh Yeshiva of OTS’s Yeshivat Hesder Machanaim, named in memory of Joseph and Leila Applebaum 


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