Sukkat Shalom is a Jewish hospice in Southern New Jersey affiliated with Samaritan Healthcare. Sukkat Shalom is sponsoring a Shabbat, Apr. 15-16, that is encouraging local congregations to look at the issue of end-of-life conversations. As of this writing, several local congregations have indicated that they will be doing some sort of programming over that Shabbat to raise awareness regarding Jewish approaches to end-of-life issues. This Sukkat Shalom Shabbat is part of a growing awareness on the part of the Jewish community on the importance of looking at how our tradition can serve as a guide to navigating illness and end-of-life concerns.
Recently, we recorded a podcast on this issue with Rabbi Elliot Dorff of the American Jewish University in Los Angeles. Rabbi Dorff is one of the leading scholars in the field of Jewish bio-ethics. The podcast, which is available from www.jewishsacredaging.com, looked at how illness impacts an individual as well as some basic texts that inform Jewish approaches to wellness, illness and end-of-life issues.
Dorff said that illness has four major effects on a person. One, long term illness is isolating. Likewise, it is debilitating, often infantilizing, and often boring. Anyone of us who has been involved either personally with long term illness or has served as a caregiver can easily relate to these four concepts. Often they converge and can have significant mental health reactions. It is easy to get depressed if you are dealing with long term or terminal illness, often alone, and have to face long periods of isolation. The psycho-spiritual needs and issues abound and impact not only the person, but also an entire family system.
One of the ways our community is seeking guidance is through the use of liturgy. There has been an explosion of creative rituals, blessings and prayers that are accompanying illness and end-of-life moments. Dr. Larry Hoffman, a professor of liturgy at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, has written that liturgy is “our public conversation about what matters most.” The development of new prayers and such is a way we are trying to begin these conversations about illness and end-of-life from within our religious tradition.
Take for example prayers and blessings that have been created for when one signs an advanced directive. Many of us have done this and we did it in the privacy of our lawyer’s office. This is a very profound moment for as we signed these documents, we accepted, in very real terms, the reality of our own mortality. Is this not a moment that begs for some sense of relationship with the sacred? So we have published blessings that can be said when we sign this document, part of one such blessing reads as follows: “God who has given me the power of choice and who has brought me the strength to make these decisions today. Thank You for granting me the wisdom to think ahead and to understand the great range of possibilities that could come in the future. When the time comes that I am no longer able to make decisions on my own behalf, may my wishes be carried out by those who are close to me. I have been blessed with so much and, may my family be at peace with my decisions. May we love one another and cherish our time together.”
The blessings of longevity are many. That same longevity has also raised significant challenges for us regarding chronic long-term illness and end-of life-issues. The need for our community to engage in timely conversations on how our tradition can serve as a guide to these most real concerns has never been more present. Right now there are many people in our community who are dealing with these concerns. Do we not owe them the comfort and embrace of what our faith can provide?
This is the latest column in a continuing series of articles by Rabbi Richard F. Address, D.Min, founder and director of Jewish Sacred Aging and the web site www.jewishsacredaging.com. As director of URJ’s Department of Jewish Family Concerns, he created the project on Sacred Aging that examined the growing impact of longevity on congregations and Jewish communal life. He teaches at HUC-JIR in New York, and has served as a rabbi of Cong. M’kor Shalom in Cherry Hill. He lives in Gloucester County.