Do You Love me?
Yom Kippur Yizkor 5774 2013
Rabbi Gary S. Creditor
I normally write the Yom Kippur Yizkor sermon first. It breaks the log jam in my writing. Yet this time I left it for last. The reason will be self-evident, as this has been the one most difficult to compose.
In the musical “Fiddler On The Roof,” after deciding to permit Hodel to marry Perchik, Tevye turns to his wife Golde and asks her: “Do you love me?” I am sure that everyone, hopefully, remembers this scene. In a shrill voice Golde responds: “Do I what?” Tevye repeats the question and Golde responds. He asks again a second time and she responds and then Tevye asks Golde one more time and she responds:
“Do I love him?
For twenty-five years I’ve lived with him
Fought with him, starved with him
Twenty-five years my bed is his
If that’s not love, what is?
And Tevye, finally responds: “Then you love me?” Golde answers: “I suppose I do.” And he rejoins: “And I suppose I love you to.”
In a final duet they sing together:
“It doesn’t change a thing
But even so
After twenty-five years
It’s nice to know.”
And when we are laying in a hospital bed, or in a nursing home, or perhaps in our own bed at home unable to speak for any number of reasons;
Or perhaps we are the ones standing at the bedside of a loved one, a parent, a spouse, a friend, for me it has been congregants, and we can only see their eyes but cannot communicate;
As the doctor or nurse is asking: “What do you want us to do?” I imagine that the one laying there is asking: “Do you love me?” And we are standing there responding: “Do I love you?”
The supreme question of life and death is contained in that question: “Do you love me?”
Perhaps we say under our breath: “God! What should we do?”
Though I am neither God nor His surrogate, too many times in my Rabbinate families have turned to me and said: “Rabbi! What should we do?”
It is a question that must have an answer.
And the answers should have been given a long time ago.
If we love them and if they love us, as hard as it is, we must ask them and we must answer them, when we are still able and in full control of our thoughts and speech. If we love them, we won’t make them answer these questions. They will know ours.
Perhaps when you were admitted to a hospital they asked you questions pertaining to Advance Medical Directives which included documents for a Living Will and Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care. These are important documents but do not allow for us to give specific directions or express our wishes. The document Five Wishes to which I will refer later goes a few steps further. Fortunately the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, through its sub-committee on Biomedical Ethics has created an excellent instrument for these purposes. At this location in the electronic edition of this sermon I am inserting the link to the page on the web. http://www.rabbinicalassembly.org/sites/default/files/public/publications/medical%20directives.pdf I recommend this document most highly because not only does it provide the detailed questions that are necessary to address, but it does through the prism of Conservative Judaism and allows us put our faith into action while we live for when we are dying. It helps us face our decisions. I wish to share a section from its introduction, Jewish Teachings about Health Care.
“Jewish tradition as understood by Conservative Judaism teaches that life is a blessing and a gift from God. Each human being is valued as created b’tselem elohim, in God’s image. Whatever the level of our physical and mental abilities, whatever the extend of our dependence on others, each person has intrinsic dignity and value in God’s eyes. Judaism values life and respects our bodies as the creation of God. We have the responsibility to care for ourselves and seek medical treatment needed for our recovery – we owe that to ourselves, to our loved ones, and to God. In accordance with our tradition’s respect for the life God has given us and its consequent bans on murder and suicide, Judaism rejects any form of active euthanasia (“mercy killing”) or assisted suicide. Within these broad guidelines, decisions may be required about which treatment would best promote recovery and would offer the greatest benefit. Accordingly, each patient may face important choices concerning what mode of treatment he or she feels would be both beneficial and tolerable.
“The breadth of the Conservative movement and its intellectual vitality have produced two differing positions put forward by Rabbis Avram Reisner and Elliot N. Dorff both approved by the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards. I am pasting the web connection to both these documents into this sermon at this location so that you can read them in their entirety.
“Both positions agree on a large area of autonomy in which a patient can make decisions about treatment when risk or uncertainty are involved. Both would allow terminally ill patients to rule out certain treatment option, to forgo mechanical life support, and to choose hospice care as a treatment option.
“Nevertheless, important differences between the two positions may be found regarding both theoretical commitments and practical applications. Rabbi Reisner affirms the supreme value of protecting all life. Even the most difficult life and that of the shortest duration is yet God given, purposeful, and ours to nurture and protect.….Rabbi Dorff finds basis in Jewish law to grant greater latitude to the patient who wishes to reject life-sustaining measures…In such circumstance, a patient might be justified in deciding that a treatment that extends life without hope for cure would not benefit him or her, and may be forgone.”
The Rabbinical Assembly document Jewish Medical Directives for Health Care which you can download and print or purchase, guides us through the questions of goals, knowledge, treatment, health care agent, Rabbinic consultation and the detailed questions for irreversible terminal illness with options to follow either Rabbi Reisner’s posture or Rabbi Dorff’s. I must stay that the former is a personal friend and the latter has been my teacher. Both opinions are heartfelt, sensitive, thorough and compelling. It is a matter of personal choice and vision.
At the very end, above the place for our signature it says:
“As God is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, so may God be my refuge, my shield and my salvation forever.”
So may He be.
The organization “Aging With Dignity” [www.agingwithdignity.org] created a booklet entitled “Five Wishes.” The fifth wish is entitled: “My Wish For What I Want My Loved Ones to Know.” In looking through many documents, I found this section to be most special and moving.
*I wish to have my family and friends know that I love them.
*I wish to be forgiven for the times I have hurt my family, friends and others.
*I wish to have my family, friends and others know that I forgive them for when they may have hurt me in my life.
*I wish for my family and friends to know that I do not fear death itself. I think it is not the end, but a new beginning for me.
*I wish for all of my family members to make peace with each other before my death, if they can.
*I wish for my family and friends to think about what I was like before I became seriously ill. I want them to remember me in this way after my death.
*I wish for family and friends and caregivers to respect my wishes even if they don’t agree with them.
*I wish for my family and friends to look at my dying as a time of personal growth for everyone, including me. This will help me live a meaningful life in my final days.
*I wish for my family and friends to get counseling if they have trouble with my death. I want memories of my life to give them joy and not sorrow.
It concludes with the following, allowing space to write in the answer: If anyone asks how I want to be remembered, please say the following about me….
I would like my family and friends, my congregants and colleagues to know that these are my wishes and I will include them there for all to know. Could you echo these sentiments? Would like to make statements similar to these to family and friends? Maybe you have personal ones to compose? Don’t wait.
When this sermon is distributed electronically, the web site for this document will be included.
I close this section with a famous quote that has been alternatively attributed to Professor Reinhold Niebuhr or to Admiral Halsey:
“God give us grace to accept serenity in the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.”
For over forty years I have been writing four yizkor sermons each year, talking about death, the meaning of life, relationships, what might be life-after-death, rituals and rites. I have written hundreds of eulogies for all the funerals at which I have officiated. In the beginning it was quite difficult and I was happy to have material shared across the non-electric Rabbinic network. It was very difficult when I was young because I had to face my own mortality as I looked at my young children and wife and couldn’t deal with thinking about life for them without me. Buying life insurance the first time was spiritually very traumatic. I have grown accustomed to these sermons, eulogies and introspection. My children are all adults on their own two feet, and the three young ones have their parents. With the passage of time and the changes in medical technology, life has focused me on dying more than death.
I am comfortable and at peace in my faith that there is an “other side,” that there is another realm of existence after this one. I embrace the classical Jewish belief that in its incorporeality I will be near God, held close in His non-physical warmth and light. I hope that the Rabbis were correct in saying that God holds class on high for all eternity. I might even, metaphorically, “sit” in the back of the room.
At this time in my life I am more concerned on “how to die,” even as I work hard at “how to live.” I have the same fears that most of us have.
I must add – pooh-pooh-pooh! – that -
I want to live out the maximum years of my life.
I want to grow old with Ruby.
I want to see the continuing episodes of our children’s exciting lives.
I dream about being at our grandchildren’s life-cycle celebrations.
And I won’t push God too hard to ask for more.
But I want my family and doctors to know:
what I want,
what I don’t want,
what to do,
what not to do,
when to wait,
and, when not to.
I need to tell them while yet I can and not wait for when it is too late. So I this summer I sat down and answered all the questions. Now you know why I wrote this sermon last. I procrastinated quite a bit and needed the time to do so. So I wrote all the others and got them out of the way.
I most strongly encourage everyone who hears these words or who reads them to take the time and do the same. Get it done. Put it in the right places. And may they not be needed for many years.
But when the moment comes, as surely it must, when we lie there in bed looking or sensing the presence of our loved ones, we will ask them: “Do you love me?” And they must surely respond: “Do I love you?” Or, perhaps we are the ones standing by the bedside and our loved ones are in the bed and we sense them saying to us: “Do you love me?” And we must surely respond: “Do I love you?” And then we will have all the answers to all the questions.
And there will be peace.
May God bless us all with many years.
May God bless us with those who love us.
May God bless us with peace.
“And I suppose I love you, too.” Amen.