Friday, December 17, 2010

Vayechi - And He Lived

I was thinking about the recent and tragic death by suicide of Mark Madoff, the son of convicted Ponzi Schemer Bernard Madoff, while studying this week’s Torah portion. The younger Madoff, a 46-year-old father of four, hanged himself with a dog leash in his Manhattan apartment last Saturday while his wife and children were out of town. The day on which Madoff killed himself was the second anniversary of his father’s arrest. Mark Madoff and his younger brother Andrew were the ones that turned their father in, after he had confessed his crimes to his family. The entire Madoff case is a tragedy: for the Madoff family, for the many individuals and charitable foundations whose investments were lost, and for the entire Jewish community. The specter of an obviously-Jewish crook defrauding so many of billions of dollars should be a source of shame for every Jew. And one would have to be heartless to not sympathize with the many who feel the pain that his crimes spread, including his family. For an intelligent young man of 46, a father of four and apparently uninvolved in his father’s crimes, to take his life in such a way, can only be heart-rending.

This week’s Torah portion opens with the words, “Vayechi Ya’akov – And Jacob lived in the Land of Egypt 17 years.” Jacob tells his son Joseph of his wishes for arrangements after his death. He knows that his death is approaching. He is happy that he was able to live out his final years in Egypt, under the protection of his son with whom he was miraculously reunited after many years apart. Jacob doesn’t want to be buried in Egypt; he instructs Joseph that, when he dies, he wishes for his remains to be taken back to Canaan, to be interred in the burial place of his father Isaac and his grandfather Abraham. Recognizing that the family will eventually leave Egypt and return to the land promised to them by G-d, Israel does not wish for his remains to spend eternity in the soil of a foreign land. Israel’s swearing his favored son to carry out his wishes as to what to do after his death, serves as a leitmotif for following generations.

Joseph himself, having taken his father’s bones back to Canaan for burial, makes the same request of his sons. Eventually, when the people Israel leaves Egypt, they carry Joseph’s bones with them for re-interment in Canaan. But the practice of making known one’s final wishes has become commonplace and normal. We instruct our loved ones as to where we’d like to be buried, or if we prefer some other method for our remains to be dealt with, we make that known. And it is an important ethical principle that one carry out your relative’s dying wishes.

But beyond expressing our wishes as to what we’d like done to our remains after we die, we also express our preferences as to he circumstances of our dying. Thanks to the incredible technology that can keep us legally alive long after we’ve reasonably expired, we often give advance notice as to our wishes with regard to so-called heroic measures being taken, or not, which will determine when and how we die. In recent years, the idea of palliative care to ease our death, rather than heroic measures to prolong our life, has become more popular and compelling. I have to say that the availability of palliative care is a good thing and has allowed so many to die with some dignity intact.

But the ultimate level of taking control of the circumstances of one’s dying, is achieved by taking one’s own life – by suicide. In recent years, there has been a movement to allow physicians to assist terminally ill patients to take their own lives. As you remember, Doctor Jack Kevorkian – dubbed ‘Dr. Death’ by some – elicited both praise and condemnation for his illegally assisting, by his own claim, 130 people to commit a painless suicide. He served eight years in a Michigan state prison for his efforts.

Now I’m astute enough – and compassionate enough – to know that some reading this will think of Jack Kevorkian as a hero. I think I understand how painful it can be to be in the throes of a terminal illness. I watched my father die a somewhat messy death from multiple myeloma, and before that my maternal grandfather from colon cancer. A prolonged death from a terminal illness robs the dying patient of his last scraps of dignity, causes his loved ones pain to see him suffer so, and can bring financial ruin to those responsible for his care. Even so, I have to tell you that the slippery slope that assisted suicide opens up, gives me some pause. Some people have famously expressed a desire to die for what can only be termed trivial reasons. It is natural for someone facing a life of severe disability to think themselves better off dead. Someone who has lost his sight, or ability to walk, or ability to control his bowels, could be forgiven for thinking that suicide offers a release from the indignity of continuing to live. My point here is not to condemn those who would wish to take control of their life by determining the time and manner of their death. Rather, my point is to offer a contrasting viewpoint. It is only natural to feel despair when faced with a life in which one will be denied some activity, some talent that is important to one’s self-definition.

Most of us have activities that we love to do. Golf, tennis, running, skiing…our favorite sports and activities give us untold amounts of pleasure and help us through the difficult times. But while these things are fun and bring joy, we should not measure our lives by these things. If we do, then our lives will seem far more shallow and vapid after they’re over. We should be able to drift in and out of these activities, because our lives’ meanings should be far deeper than these things. If we think that our lives are no longer worth living because we’ve lost the ability to play some sport, then we’ve lost sight of what the real meanings of our lives are. We should think of those whose spirits have been able to soar despite our trials and setbacks. Of, for example, the wounded warriors who have found the emotional strength to live on despite losing one or more limbs in battle. Of those whose fighting spirit makes them see that their worth as individuals, far exceeds the sum of what they’re capable of doing. What a tragedy if someone thinks that, because they can no longer perform some accustomed physical feat, that their life is no longer worth living. Of if a terminally ill person frets over the way his protracted treatment is eating up the estate he might leave to his heirs. Another hint of misplaced priorities.

And how about a relatively-young man, with many years of health, happiness and yes, productivity ahead of him, so despairing because of his father’s crimes that he feels he must ‘check out’ prematurely? Perhaps it is unseemly to reflect on these things as we inaugurate the Shabbat, the day of rest and renewal of spirit that is G-d’s greatest gift to the Jewish people and the Jews’ greatest gift to humanity. But my purpose is not for us to despair, rather to learn an important lesson. And that lesson is that we must, while we have control of our faculties, take stock of what’s most important in our lives. Although evil surely does exist in our world, I’m guessing that just about everyone reading my words today has spread far more good than evil in his or her lifetime. Perhaps you have not given yourself the credit you deserve for the good you’ve spread. We frequently think more harshly of our lives than we should, because we focus far to much on achievements, than goodness. Mark Madoff, according to those close to him, was not a man in his crooked father’s image. Rather, he was a relatively unassuming man who helped many with his expertise in investments, who prospered at least in part because of his hard work, and who cared deeply about those closest to him. It is a tragedy that he ended his own life so ignominiously, leaving a widow and four orphans, because of the shame his father’s crimes caused him to endure. How tragic when any human being feels his life has lost its meaning, whether because of a broken relationship, because he must endure a protracted illness, or because some new disability has robbed him of some activities that brings him joy. In all these cases, from the famous to the anonymous, the tragedy is that we find it difficult to see the true value of our lives.

Jacob’s life was supremely valuable, although he had a rocky beginning. As his death approached, he might have been forgiven for thinking that he had outlived his usefulness. He might have thought he would be unduly overburdening his son by making him swear to carry his bones back to Canaan for burial. But Jacob’s greatness, through all his foibles, was that he understood the values that make life worthwhile. He therefore felt free to burden Joseph with his request to return him to Canaan for burial with his fathers. And Joseph’s greatness is amply displayed in the fact, chronicled later in this week’s Torah portion, that he indeed carried out his dying father’s request.

“Vayechi – and he lived.” May we find the strength and resolve to live out the fullness of our years. And may we be blessed to understand the true worth of our lives, and those of the ones closest to us.