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Torah Attitude: Parashas Shemini: Euthanasia is murder - murder is not merciful
A heavenly fire consumed Aaron's sons. Closest relatives should defile themselves to take care of their deceased. The commandments were given to preserve life and not to destroy life. Even if it is a matter of prolonging life for a few moments, one is obligated to desecrate the Shabbos laws. Even if we know that the person will suffer for the rest of his life, whether it is short or long, we are obligated to save the person's life. If G'd makes someone sick, then why does G'd not cure them? G'd cures the sick and provides for the poor through His messengers. A person who takes his own life is considered a murderer. Do not contribute, directly or indirectly, to bring about an early death. Anything that brings about early death to a person is considered murder. There is a purpose in suffering.
Aaron's sons die
In this week's portion Nadav and Avihu, the two sons of Aaron, brought an unauthorized offering into the Holy of Holies on the occasion of the inauguration of the Tabernacle. Our sages explain that they committed a number of transgressions by doing so. A heavenly fire came down upon them, consumed their souls and they died. Moses called upon his cousins Mishael and Elzaphan and told them to carry the two bodies out of the Sanctuary and out of the camp. Our sages discuss how the bodies were removed from the Holy of Holies as it was forbidden for anyone to enter there. One opinion is that the Angel of Death killed them and brought them outside. Another opinion is that it was necessary to pull them out.
Kohanim and dead bodies
We may question why did Moses called upon his cousins rather than his nephews, the brothers of the deceased to remove the dead bodies. Kohanim are prohibited from having any contact with a dead body. However, there is a special commandment which also applies to Kohanim that the closest relatives should defile themselves to take care of their deceased (see Vayikra 21:1-3). The Da'as Zekenim explains that since this was the day of the inauguration of the Kohanim as well as the Tabernacle, they had been anointed and on that particular day they had risen to the status of the High Priest. The special commandment does not apply to the High Priest who may not defile himself, even for his closest relatives.
Live and not die
Had Nadav and Avihu just been smitten and not killed by the heavenly fire, and they were in mortal danger, everything would have been different. Under those circumstances it would have been permissible for their brothers to run into the Holy of Holies to save them and to do anything necessary to keep them alive. As it says, (Vayikra 18:5) "And you shall observe My decrees and My laws … and live by them." The Talmud (Yuma 85b) explains this to mean you shall live by them and not die by them, and learns from here that saving a person's life overrides even the laws of Shabbos. The commandments were given to preserve life and not to destroy life. The laws of Shabbos may be violated and everything is permitted even if there is only the slightest chance to save a life.
A few moments
Our sages are very explicit that even if there is a chance of prolonging life only for a few moments, one is obligated to desecrate the Shabbos laws (see Shulchan Aruch Or Hachaim 329:4). There is a beautiful insight in The Meiri, one of the Talmudic commentaries. He explains that a few moments of life in this world prior to entering the eternal world have a tremendous potential to make a world of a difference. For example, a person who repents from his sins of the past even a few moments before death changes his whole Olam Haba for eternity.
It goes even further. Even if we know that the person will suffer for the rest of his life, whether it is short or long, we are obligated to save the person's life. The value of life is so great in itself that it overrides any other concerns. The quality of being alive is more important than any concerns about the quality of life. The prophet Jeremiah exclaims, (Eichah 3:39) "What is a living person complaining about, is he strong to control his sins? Explains the Talmud (Kidushin 80b), why does a person who is alive complain about what happens to him? Did he never sin that he lives in the merit of his righteousness? He should stop complaining and realize that he is only alive due to the grace of G'd.
Why does G'd not cure?
G'd gave permission to man to get involved in the lives of his fellow human beings to heal and support in any way possible. The Talmud (Bava Kama 85a) learns that it is permissible for a doctor to heal from what it says (Shemos 21:19) that if one hits his fellow Jew he has to pay for the healing. In regards to charity, it says explicitly (Devarim 15:7-8) "when there is among you a poor person … you shall open your hand to him … whatever he is lacking." The Talmud (Bava Basra 10a) tells us how the great Rabbi Akiva was once asked by the Roman commander, Turnus Rufus, if G'd loves the paupers why does G'd not support them? Why does G'd make people poor and then command us to give charity and care for them? In the same way we may ask, if G'd makes someone sick, then why does G'd not cure them? Why does G'd expect us to cure them?
There are two issues. On the one hand, a person suffering with an illness or suffering from poverty is the result of a Divine Judgment. At the same time, there is an opportunity and obligation for those surrounding the afflicted person to do charity and acts of loving-kindness. Our sages say that G'd has many messengers and ways of dealing with individuals. Both the doctor who heals and the philanthropist who gives charity are messengers acting on behalf of G'd. So G'd cures the sick and provides for the poor through His messengers.
Suicide is murder
On the other hand, in matters of life and death G'd has retained the final say for Himself. As it says, (Samuel I 2:6) "G'd kills and gives life." No doctor or other individual has the right to interfere with G'd's plans. As we say in our daily prayers (Shemoneh Esrei, G'd's Might), "G'd kills and gives life and lets salvation spring forth." Only G'd Himself knows when the salvation will come through giving life or taking life. A dying person in great pain who is begging for his life to be terminated may not do so and may not be assisted to do so. Just as it is forbidden to take someone else's life, the Rambam says (Laws of Murder 2:2), "It is forbidden for a person to take his own life." A person who takes his own life is considered a murderer.
Do not bring an early death
The Halachic authorities are very explicit that near the time of death, the most important consideration is not to contribute, directly or indirectly, to bring about an early death. As its says, (Shulchan Aruch Yorehdah 399:1), "Near the time of death one must not touch a dying person as it may bring about an earlier death." And as the Rambam says (ibid 2:7) the same capital punishment applies to someone who kills a dying person as to the one who kills a healthy person.
Early death is murder
In our society, there is a lot of confusion about the ethical and moral conduct of dealing with these situations of life and death. It is similar to the discussion in last week's Torah Attitude concerning whether Robin Hood was a righteous person or a criminal. In the same way, we are experiencing a heated debate regarding whether the one who removes a feeding tube from a brain damaged person is a hero or a murderer? From the Torah point of view, the Halachic law is clear. Anything that brings about early death to a person is considered murder. However, one is not obligated to start using life-sustaining equipment to try to lengthen the life of a person who is about to die, when death is imminent (Halochos of Aveilus based on Shulchan Aruch ibid).
Purpose of suffering
We have to realize that there is a purpose in suffering as well. Any suffering endured in this world relieves a person of much harsher suffering in the world to come. The Ramban in his introduction to Job writes that if a person would realize the benefits of suffering in this world, he would request to be inflicted with the suffering of Job. We may not ask for tests. In fact, in our morning prayers we ask not to be tested. Therefore, we may not ask for suffering because it may be a test that we cannot endure. But the knowledge of the benefits of suffering puts into perspective our inability to decide matters of life and death, even when it involves suffering. Only G'd knows the total picture about this world and the world to come. Only He understands the real benefit for any particular individual and is in a position to decide whether this person should suffer in this world or in the world to come. May we all be spared any suffering and pain, and not have to make these difficult decisions for our dear ones. And may the time come soon when G'd will remove the angel of death forever.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network