Leap of Faith

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Leap of Faith

Why Moses would have sided with Archie Battersbee’s mother

Archie Battersbee
Archie Battersbee

When we toast l’chaim we remind ourselves that Judaism values life absolutely. “To everything there is a season; a time for every experience under heaven. A time to give birth and a time to die, a time for planting and a time to uproot…” But the fourteen paired opposites cited by Kohelet are not as easily acceptable as he assumes.

For some, death comes as a welcomed next step in a life well-lived, but for most, dying is to be resisted at all costs. Even Moses pleads for a reprieve from imminent death (Deut. 3:23). The midrash teaches that he offered 515 prayers to try to change God’s mind. (Devarim Rabbah 11:10). The Talmud tells us that when a rabbi was seriously ill his students declared a public fast and continuous prayers in order to keep him alive. Only when his maid could no longer bear to see his suffering did she interrupt their prayers by throwing jars from the roof, allowing his soul to escape. (Ketubot 104a)

What would they say in the debate over Archie Battersbee, who was taken off life-support after an accident that caused brainstem death? Is there ever ‘a time to die’, particularly when a person is young, or has unfilled wishes and potential?

At 120 Moses knows he will die, but the bible tells us he is still vigorous, so his death feels premature. But God has decreed it and he has, finally, to accede if not fully accept. He will not enter the land he has spent his life journeying towards; he can only view it from afar. He would surely understand the pain and unfairness of a decree to end life when there is so much more to live for.

The halachic category of goses – the dying person – is left undefined. We’re supposed to know or trust medical opinion that dying is underway. Death cannot be hastened, but we can remove impediments to it. The key legal ruling in Archie’s case was that the treatment “serves only to protract his death whilst being unable to prolong his life”. (Justice Hayden 15 July)

Moses stopped begging for life after 515 prayers and the rabbi’s maid stopped the ongoing prayers of his students. They removed the impediments and death took place.

It is never easy to do this. As hospice chaplain I see the process unfold, with families hopefully reaching acceptance. As Jews, we will say: “Blessed is the true judge,” when we hear of a death. It is hard to accept but is the first stage of healing.


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