A story is told in the Talmud of Rabbi Elazar’s final days. As he lies dying, his friend and study partner Rabbi Yohanan comes to see him and finds him weeping. Rabbi Yohanan asks whether he is crying due to regrets about his Torah learning, family, or wealth. “No,” says Rabbi Elazar pointing to his own body. “I am crying because of this beauty, which will rot in the earth.” “In that case,” says his friend, “you surely have reason to weep.” (Talmud Berachot 5b) The two men cry together, holding hands.
The story of this death is still unspeakably sad to me. Losing our beautiful bodies is a central truth of being human, which we cannot avoid and must grieve over. No matter how well we live our lives, soon after death our bodies begin to decay. It doesn’t matter how many kale smoothies we drink or how many mitzvot we do — our bodies and minds are finite and, ultimately, not in our control. And, yet if we are able to stay present in the loss — when death is close by — there is a possibility for incredible intimacy and human connection in these final moments. If we are lucky, we will die like Rabbi Elazar, without regrets, in a warm bed, with a good friend beside us, holding our hand, empathizing with the terrible loss we are facing.
For the past 12 years, working as a rabbi who works with the dying, I’ve found that most of the ways we speak about death deny the undeniable reality of our mortality and inevitable decline. We use war metaphors for illness — “defeating cancer” or “battling disease” — that try to suggest we are in charge of our bodies. That, in turn, implies that retaining our health is a moral victory, one that all of us eventually lose.
Judaism teaches us — in the psalmist’s words — to count our days, limnot yameinu. (90:12) To me, this means to stay present in each of our days and the days of our loved ones, until their very last breath — even when, because of illness or cognitive decline, for example, that life is no longer the life we imagined or recognize.
It is scary for most of us to stay present with the dying and value life’s final moments — when a mother no longer remembers a child’s name, or when we are witnessing the debilitating physical pain or mental anguish accompanying dying. It is tempting to avoid being fully present by “fixing” (for example, looking for last-minute cures, or being inappropriately cheerful). Rabbi Yohanan provides a role model for how to stay with each other as we die: He joins with Rabbi Elazar in his weeping, holding him and acknowledging the hugeness and universality of his grief. All of us who visit people in hospice are confronted with the fact that the difference between the person who is dying and the person who is visiting the dying is simply timing.
When I have had opportunities to sit in the here-and-now with someone who is dying, it has been both sad and beautiful. My garden behind my home in Oakland, California, comes to mind, the way plants (and people) seem to dry out and become nearly weightless at the end. Petals and skin grow thin and translucent with age, becoming more porous and vulnerable, until a strong wind or a harsh touch is enough to break the delicate membranes apart. I think of life, at the cellular level, loving itself until the end: roots thirstily drinking nutrients from the soil, even after the bloom and stalk have died; lungs struggling for another breath, greedy for oxygen, even when the mind is prepared to die. When I place my hand close to the hand of someone supposedly beyond communication, their fingers will often find mine, entwining around my fingers like my passionflower vine on its trellis. They seem to be searching — perhaps unconsciously — for firm connection, even in the last breaths.
I recently sat with a long-term client of mine, a 101-year-old Holocaust survivor, as she was dying. She held my hand in her dry, parched palm. She seemed peaceful when she opened her surprisingly clear blue eyes to say goodbye to me with a slow blink of her eye. She was radiantly beautiful in that moment. The story of Rabbi Elazar came to mind.
Dying at 101 after a natural decline is the best-case scenario for any of us. Dying old also means forming a century’s worth of deep relationships. Each of her days counted, including this one. She was ready to go. Weeping, I let go of her hand and said good-bye.
Rabbi Elliot Kukla serves San Francisco’s Bay Area Jewish Healing Center, where he codirects Kol Haneshama: Jewish end-of-life /hospice volunteer program, a joint program with the San Francisco Campus for Jewish Living.