I recently read an article by Rabbi Shlomo Brody in the Jerusalem Post weekend magazine (March 10, for those interested). The article was about the concept of saying viduy when one knows that their death is imminent. Rabbi Brody feels that this prayer is not as widely recognized and recited as it should be. For one thing, no one ever really wants to talk about their own death, even when suffering from a fatal disease. It is human nature to keep hoping for the best, to have faith that we will get better, or that we can at least push off death for as long as possible via medical procedures and treatments, and of course, prayer. And this is how it should be. Most G-d fearing people (Jews and non-Jews alike) believe that life and health is a gift, nothing short of miraculous. And our lives would most likely be meaningless if we didn’t feel this way.
But what happens when we know- we just know- that the end is near? It is then that we must confront it and accept it. That includes repenting for our sins and asking G-d to accept one’s death as atonement.
I acknowledge before You, Lord my G‑d and the G‑d of my fathers, that my recovery and my death are in Your hands. May it be Your will that You heal me with total recovery, but, if I die, may my death be an atonement for all the errors, iniquities, and willful sins that I have erred, sinned and transgressed before You, and may You grant my share in the Garden of Eden, and grant me the merit to abide in the World to Come which is vouchsafed for the righteous.
This is the first paragraph- the main paragraph- of the Viduy prayer, the last confession. It is chilling, yet peaceful at the same time. It is giving yourself back to your Creator, wholeheartedly, with nothing held back.
The article by Rabbi Brody detailing the meaning (literal and figurative) of the “last confession” struck a chord with me. Last Thursday, 23 Adar, marked 4 years since my father, Ted Resnick z”l, passed away, 8 weeks after being diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. When the cancer was discovered, due to his age–82–and the progression of the disease, it was determined that any aggressive type of treatment would not be beneficial for him, and would only weaken him further. My siblings and I immediately jumped into action, consulting specialists, rabbis, and even old doctor friends of our family back in the U.S. But it quickly became clear that there wasn’t anything we could do except be there for him and make sure he wasn’t in pain. We notified the necessary family members and close friends, and began to prepare, with a heavy heart, for the inevitable. We knew what was coming, and so did my father. We held nothing back. He was there in the doctor’s office when we received the prognosis. While his daughters quietly cried, not wanting him to see, my father asked straightforwardly, “How much time do I got?”
It wasn’t much. Three months max. The disease was aggressive and had already spread to all the wrong places. Though my mother, my three siblings and I didn’t want to talk about it, at some point one of us mentioned viduy. My father was a deeply religious man, davening and studying gemara (talmud) each and every day. Since he was a young boy. This is something he would want to do. We all agreed that he should say it. We consulted with his rabbi here in Israel, Rav Yitzchak Steinberg, shlita, of the Eretz Chemda Kollel in Ra’anana. He agreed, and we made up a time and day for him to come. Rav Steinberg explained that it was important for viduy to be said while my father was able to cognitively understand what he was saying, and preferably be able to speak as well. We didn’t know how much longer he would be able to speak and understand us, so it was imperative that this be done as soon as possible.
None of us were there the day that my father said viduy. Rav Steinberg came over to my parents’ apartment and we left. It was much too painful to be there, and my father would have probably been uncomfortable.
About a week later, my father developed an infection and was hospitalized for several days. Rav Steinberg came again to visit him, this time in the hospital. He caught him on a “good” day. My father was sitting up in bed reading the newspaper and was delighted to see his rabbi, shaking his hand and giving him a huge smile, though at this point he had trouble speaking. Yet, we were all so happy to see him like this, and without his knowing, while he was reading the Jerusalem Post, I snapped a picture of him with my phone. That was the last picture I have of him. A few days later he was released from the hospital to home hospice care at my sister’s house in Ra’anana.
On the morning he passed away, a mere 7 days later, I was sitting with him holding his hand. I too had a chance to give him a “last confession”, and I asked mechila from him for all the times I may have disobeyed his wishes or been disrespectful. I told him what a great father he had been to me and my siblings, and an amazing husband to my mother. His eyes were glossed over and his breathing was weak, a sure sign of what was to come, yet he seemed to hear me. At least I was hoping that he did. Suddenly he raised his arm up and pointed upwards to the ceiling. I didn’t understand what he was trying to tell me, and I asked him about it. Of course, he could not answer, but he kept his finger pointing upwards and smiled faintly.
Three hours later my father left this world. It was only later that evening that I realized what he had been telling me, which after the fact seemed so obvious that I don’t know how I couldn’t have seen it. He was pointing up, toward Shomayim, the Heavens. My father had known what was coming and was prepared for it. He had had his last confession and was ready to meet his Creator. He was at peace, and I am so grateful for that.
In memory of my incredible father, Ted Resnick. May his memory be for a blessing.
L’ilui nishmat Tuvia Moshe ben Yisroel Leib HaLevi, zichrono livracha.