Dates are important in Judaism. There are set calendrical dates standard to our tribe and personal dates unique to our familial orbits and ourselves. We know each new moon brings a countdown to particular holidays. We also know that birthdays, anniversaries, and other milestones are important markers that we usually can plan.
The one thing we usually cannot plan however is our date of death. That is, until Brittany Maynard’s case.
Ms. Maynard was 29 years young, beautiful inside and out according to those who knew her well, and a proud wife and devoted friend. Earlier this year, she was diagnosed with a brain tumor that caused violent seizures and excruciating headaches along with stroke-like symptoms and severe neck pain. The doctors told her that she had six months to live. Ms. Maynard then decided she would create a “bucket list” of things to accomplish and would terminate life on her terms. She chose November 1, 2014. She even changed residency to Oregon where there is legislation allowing people to terminate their life in what is called The Death with Dignity Act.
This case has stoked all sorts of questions and debates in the ethical world. Many Jewish leaders have weighed in to the conversation. There are too many opinions to share all. It is hyper-complicated and very nuanced. But, the major opposing views are simple: We are all given free choice and can make the selections we want, while at the same time we are told that our lives are gifts from God and to control something that is supposed to be in Divine hands is not the Jewish way. Some even argue that Ms. Maynard did not end her life, cancer did. There was no decision to die since she had already begun the process. Both sides can be heard clearly in my ears.
The date set to die by Ms. Maynard was not the date she kept. She chose to stay alive a little longer, two days after her husband’s birthday. Perhaps she still had more living to do. Perhaps she was afraid to die. Perhaps she chose life a little longer. Who knows?
In this week’s Torah portion of Vayera, Isaac is prescribed a time and place to die, a sacrifice on Mount Moriah. Most accounts tell us he had no idea that it was the end of his term. In fact, his question – “since we have all the accouterments for a sacrifice, where is the animal?” – indicates his innocence to the moment. If he knew the time was imminent, would he have fled and chosen to live longer? Would he have written a bucket list of things to do? As the story teaches, Isaac has his lease lengthened by the presence of a ram and the voice of an angel. His time was not yet up.
As a rabbi who is regularly near when loved ones are on their deathbed, I am often asked questions about planning for death before it even occurs. When could the funeral be? How long is shiva if they die tomorrow? Most of these questions come from nerves and an effort to gain some control over the uncontrollable.
I usually respond: This is a time where we submit to God. God chooses when this person will leave this world, not us. Our job is to be sure they are free from pain and feel our presence, love, and support.
Golda Meir once said she wanted to govern time, not be governed by time. We all try to govern more in our lives and to gather more control. The case of choosing our circumstances for death is complex and knotty. I cannot purport to offer one solid answer that fits for every person and every Jew. We do not live in a world with religious uniformity; should we die with it? Nonetheless, it is important to glean from Vayera that divine providence and submission to God can be a worthy path when dying and even when living.