Yehoshua Goldfinger

The Comfort of Halacha: What I Learned from my mother’s last years

For the last six years or her life, my mother was incapacitated, lying in bed on a feeding tube in a quiet corner of a nursing home. Beyond her room, a battle raged.

As infections and issues cropped up, the doctors begged us to not pursue aggressive treatments. They said she was already a sick woman and she needed to go. We, however, are Orthodox Jews. Based on consulting with our Rabbi, we generally pushed for the same treatment that would be given to any other patient and the fight on.

Such an experience changes your mindset. Here is how it improved mine.

A Matter of Outlook

Some would look at the doctors as heartless, only concerned about money and looking at my mother as waste of resources. Others would look at us as pigheaded and shallow. We were wasting our money and energy when there was already no hope. I see it differently. These were two compassionate, sensitive parties, trying to navigate an extremely tough situation from vastly different mentalities.

In secular society, what matters is not life, but quality of life. Life is meant to be enjoyed and relished and a life without enjoyment is nothing. Keeping a woman who is incapacitated and depleting resources alive isn’t only wrong – it’s cruel. As much as the family would emotionally like to hold on, they must come to terms with the painful facts. Their loved one is no longer enjoying life and their money and emotional energy would be better spent elsewhere. The doctors who pushed us to move may not have only had financial interests in mind. Perhaps they had my mother’s potential pain and our emotional well-being as well.

However, religious Jews have a different picture of life. Life is about spiritual accomplishment, becoming part of G-d’s plan to perfect ourselves and the world. From that frame of mind, no life is insignificant. There is not a single moment that cannot be used to perform a Mitzvah creating eternal effects.

From a short time into her illness, my mother was badly impaired, hardly the picture of accomplishment. However, those who followed my parents during those trying years would see clearly a world of accomplishment.

As the disease progressed, my mother lost most of her abilities and arguably her free will. However, along with it went her inhibitions. How she acted could not have been to impress others or gain – she didn’t have the capacity to think that far. It came from a very deep and ingrained place – a place that we all have but are too concerned with looks and propriety to get in touch with. And what we saw was beautiful.

We saw a woman who still clearly believed in everything she believed in before. She had the same dedication to her ideals, the same passion for Shabbos, prayer and Judaism. We saw her love and care for our father and us. And we knew, because of her state, that what we saw wasn’t a show – it was real.

Even after she became completely incapacitated and could not walk, talk or show us her dedication, she became the catalyst of so many others to grow and accomplish. My father’s dedication – making daily visits to a woman who did not know he was there – showed again how deep a marriage can go and the honor that every individual deserves. A community stepped up to the plate time after time again to be there for our family. And how our family itself grew and pulled together in ways we had not previously imagined.

Navigating Confusion

But even as Jews, can we be sure that the doctors were wrong? We speculate and attempt to explain G-d’s actions and why He causes tragic events, saying that tragedy pushes us to grow. But it is still tragic. She seemed to be in pain and you would need to be sick to “grow” at someone else’s expense. Perhaps this was not meant to be an opportunity for teaching dedication and giving. Perhaps it was a test if we would if we would put the suffering of another above our emotional need for closeness. Would we will have the strength to properly move on, when we so badly want to stay in the past?

Then again, it was unknown if she, in her state, felt pain or distress. We could not communicate with her or know her wishes. If she did not wish to die, would denying treatment not be close to murder? Do her “wishes” actually matter? Acknowledgment of divine law and purpose does not always remove murkiness, it often exacerbates it.

However, we believe that G-d left us instructions. The Torah gives us guidance on how to keep Shabbos, how to pray, put on Teffilin and balance our personal interactions. The same Talmudic sources can be pined for direction in end of life decisions. Just as we would handle questions regarding Kashrus in the kitchen, we contacted a Rabbi, who referred us to a couple of experts in the field. And with the compassion we would expect of a father and the precision that we would expect of a surgeon, they evaluated the situation and advised us from a Halachic perspective what the right actions would be. We made the decisions using the same protocol we use in every part of our lives.

Finding Peace in Our Tradition

I know the stereotype of how Rabbis deal with end of life matters. Death must be avoided at all costs and pain and suffering are not factors. Any and all care must be administered to keep patients alive no matter the state they are in. Peace of mind of the patient and family are not part of the equation. We do not give up and we do not let go.

This could not be farther from our experience. I cannot and will not mention the details. Each situation is different and for a novice to extrapolate is dangerous. However, I can say that the advice and decisions made took compassionate factors into account and was not afraid to unapologetically let go when the time was right. Emotion and pain were vital factors in the decisions, but so was the sanctity of every moment of life.

As for the peace of mind of the family members, I will never forget a line made by my brother. We opted to perform a delicate, life saving procedure after intensive consulting with a Rabbi. While waiting nervously for the results, we wondered what others do in such a circumstances when they do not have a protocol to follow. “I assume they make the best guess,” my brother said, “and I am sure that there are times when it haunts them for the rest of their lives.”

The doctors pushing us in the other direction had their own protocol. These were professionals dealing day in and day out with pain and death and experts in their field trying to navigate the new moral challenges that medical advances have created. I am sure that they were striving to do their best with the current information and philosophy to make the right decisions. However, history is littered with ideas that seemed progressive at the time and horrible in hindsight. From the rise of mental institutions in the 1700s to Eugenics in the 1930s and to the questionable psychological experimentation that occurred during the 1950s and 1960s, we are reminded of the limits of our intellects to make the right choice. We need to reach out to G-d.

By following Halacha for end of life decisions, we did not feel we were being controlled and trapped by an ancient creed in a modern world. On the contrary, we gained direction and peace in a world that is even more complex than the past using a tradition that has lasted millennia. Time and again, ideas from it that seemed temporarily outdated proved themselves prophetic and wise only a few decades later. We and the Rabbis that applied them also did the best we could to understand G-d’s will and plan in this tough situation and made principled decisions that my mother would be proud of and that, I believe, she was happy to have been made when she reached the next world. And it has given me peace in a way that is rare to find in our modern and confusing world.

As Jews, we have a treasure. Let’s use it.

About the Author
Yehoshua Goldfinger is a Yeshiva educated Software Engineer, having spent 10 years in 3 different Yeshivos post-high school and spending the last decade working in defense, logistics and now finance. He loves bouncing the ideas he sees in both worlds off each other. He lives in the Orthodox Jewish community of Baltimore, MD with his wonderful wife and five terrific kids.
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