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Parshas Vayigash (5777)

Euthenasia: Mercy or Murder?

Let me share with you two interesting cases which were in the news some years ago – both which touch upon the important and controversial issue of euthanasia, or “mercy killing”:

Family argues taking 84-year-old off life support is against their faith
A legal battle is raging in Manitoba between doctors who want to take an 84-year-old man off life support and his family who says pulling the plug would be tantamount to murder according to their religious beliefs. Samuel Golubchuk's family says it would be a sin under the Orthodox Jewish faith to "hasten" his death by removing the ventilator and feeding tube. "They believe that an intentional act which likely will result in death is murder," said Neil Kravetsky, the family's lawyer. The family had obtained a temporary court order to thwart doctors' plans to remove life support, but the fight became public Tuesday when the family asked the judge for an extension. Court of Queen's Bench Justice Perry Schulman has reserved his decision on the matter. The Winnipeg man was first taken to the emergency department in October with heart problems and pneumonia, but was also dealing with brain injuries from a fall four years ago. After a month of hospitalization, doctors at Winnipeg's Grace General Hospital told Golubchuk's family of their decision to withdraw life support. But Golubchuk's son and daughter decided to fight the decision, arguing that if he is alive, then there is still hope. "There's no requirement [in the religion] to resuscitate if you're gone. The Jewish people don't believe that you prolong death," Kravetsky said. "But if there's brain activity and heartbeat, that person is still alive." In a court affidavit, Rabbi Y. Charytan, who works for Jewish Child and Family Services, said Orthodox Jews believe "life must be extended as long as possible and we are not allowed to hasten death." Bill Olson, a lawyer representing one of the doctors, countered that technology is the only thing keeping Golubchuk alive. He said Golubchuk was treated for weeks to see whether his condition improved, but when it didn't, doctors decided to withdraw life support. "No doctor I know has ever tried to play God. They take very seriously their ethical obligation to only afford that which they honestly believe would be appropriate, beneficial care to the patient," said Olson. "And in this case, they concluded nothing more they could do would be any potential benefit and the condition he's in is irreversible."


Self-professed mercy killer Robert Latimer denied day parole
Saskatchewan farmer Robert Latimer has been denied day parole from the life sentence he's serving for murdering his severely disabled daughter in 1993. After a hearing Tuesday, National Parole Board members said they were left with the feeling Latimer has not developed sufficient insight and understanding of his actions. The board recommended to Corrections Canada that Latimer participate in counseling. He won't have another chance to apply for day parole for two years. Tracy was born with cerebral palsy and possessed the mental capacity of a three-month-old child. She was entirely dependent on her parents and needed round-the-clock care. Latimer continued to insist that taking Tracy's life was the right thing to do, explaining that the 12-year-old who weighed less than 40 pounds was facing what he called another mutilating surgery. He said because of anti-seizure medicine she would have had to bear that pain with regular-strength Tylenol. He told the board the killing was not a snap decision and came after his wife said they would have to call in Dr. Jack Kevorkian, an American who helped people commit suicide. Latimer said the two never discussed his ultimate decision to put Tracy in the cab of his pickup truck and pipe exhaust gas into it. After she was dead, Latimer put her back into bed and claimed she died in her sleep, but later admitted the killing after an autopsy revealed the cause of death. Latimer told police how he watched his daughter's life ebb away. He was convicted of second-degree murder in 1994 and sentenced to life in prison. The case sparked a vigorous national debate on mercy killing. Latimer maintained he killed his daughter to spare her further pain, including an upcoming operation. He complained the law did not distinguish between what he did out of compassion and other kinds of murders.

So there you have it, folks …. two euthanasia stories that are quite similar, each involving a family member in tremendous pain with virtually no “quality of life” - the only difference being that in the former case, the family is fighting to keep their loved one alive, while in the latter, the father killed the suffering daughter himself.


What does the Torah have to say about this, you ask?

Jewish law forbids euthanasia in all forms, and considers it an act of homicide. The life of a person is not "his" - rather, it belongs to the One Who granted that life. It may be therefore be reclaimed only by the true Owner of that life. Despite one's noble intentions, an act of mercy-killing is flagrant intervention into a domain that transcends this world.

One source in the Bible for this prohibition may be found the Book of Genesis (9:5) where G-d commands Noach as he emerges from the Ark after the flood: "But your blood of your lives will I require; ...from the hand of man, from the hand of a person's brother, will I require the life of man." The additional phrase "from the hand of a person's brother" after having already stated "from the hand of man" is redundant. The author of the book HaKsav V'haKaballah explains that this verse refers to a prohibition against euthanasia. Although murder is the opposite of brotherly love, one might think that euthanasia is in fact a permitted expression of brotherly love. This verse imprints on our conscience that this particular form of "brotherly love" is nothing more than plain murder.

This does not mean that one should be lax about relieving the other person's pain. Elimination of suffering is a commendable goal. In fact, this may permit even "aggressive" treatment of pain to a degree that is not standard medical practice. For example, heroin use for treatment of pain may be acceptable according to Jewish law, in spite of the risk of addiction. It may be prohibited, however, by civil law.

There are other considerations as well, such as passive/active intervention, prayer for a suffering person's death, and the definition and treatment of a moribund patient (goses). These and other related topics may be further studied in the many books dealing with this complex subject. See, for example, "The Jewish Attitude Towards Euthanasia," by Fred Posner, Jewish Bio-Ethics, by Fred Posner & J. David Bleich, Sanhedrin Press. [Source: Ohr Somayach’s Ask the Rabbi ]


Although the Torah position is quite clear, and “pulling the plug” is never allowed no matter how much the person seems to be suffering – with the underlying rationale being that only G-d Who gives life can decide when a human being’s life should be taken away – one can still ask the question: Why would G-d want us to prolong this person’s life when he/she is practically dead? What kind of “life” is it that we are so devoted to preserving when the quality of that life is virtually non-existent?

I believe that we can come to a better understanding of the Torah’s position on euthanasia by examining a very strange conversation that takes place between our forefather Jacob and Pharaoh, King of Egypt, and which is recorded for all posterity in this week’s Torah portion, Parshas Vayigash:

“… Then Joseph brought Jacob, his father, and presented him to Pharaoh, and Jacob blessed Pharaoh. Pharaoh said to Jacob, ‘How many are the days of the years of your life?’ Jacob answered Pharaoh, ‘The days of the years of my sojourns have been a hundred and thirty years. Few and bad have been the days of the years of my life, and they have not reached the life spans of my forefathers in the days of their sojourns.’” (Genesis 47:7-9)

Now the Torah is not simply a history book which records whatever happened in Biblical times. Rather, it is as its name suggests – a “Torah” – i.e. an Instruction Book for living. Which means that we are meant to derive life lessons from every single story and commandment recorded in the Torah. So I ask you … what lessons can we possibly learn from the above conversation?? Basically, Pharaoh sees the aging Patriarch Jacob and asks him how old he is – to which Jacob responds that he had a short and miserable life. What’s the message for us?

HaKsav V'haKaballah points out that when Pharaoh asks Jacob how old he is, he uses the word chayim – i.e. how many years of chayim (life) have you lived. But Jacob responds by saying that the years of his megurai, or sojourns, have been 130 years, while the years of his chayim were few and bad and nowhere near the years of chayim of his forefathers. Why did Jacob switch from chayim to megurai?

The answer he gives is that, in the Torah view of things, there are two types of “living” one can do on this earth. Some people are just “sojourning” through life. True, they are physically “alive” – but they live very materialistic lives for no one but themselves, all the while neglecting their inner soul, so that they are really just sojourning from the moment they are born until they die. And if you want to measure their life spans, you have only to examine their birth and death certificates.

Others are actually “living” life – meaning that they are living spiritual and moral lives in which they are giving to others, and are living up to the fullest potential of the soul which they possess. Such people’s lives are not measured by physical birth and death but by the spiritual quality of the life they live.

These two types of living reflect two diametrically opposed world views – those who believe that we are merely physical beings and who measure their lives accordingly versus those who believe that we possess a Divine soul which is something ineffable that cannot be expressed in terms of EEG’s.

This is the powerful message of the conversation between Jacob and Pharaoh. Pharaoh was of the belief that chayim is one-dimensional – you live a material life, gather as many toys as you can, and then you die. So when he sees the aging Patriarch, he asks him, “How long are the years of your chayim?” To which Jacob responds, “You got it all wrong, Pharaoh! If you want to know how long my megurai, my physical sojourn on earth, has been thus far, you can examine my birth certificate and you will see that I have lived 130 years. But that’s not the real living. Chayim, the years I have truly lived fulfilling my spiritual potential, have been few and bad, because of all the tzaros and difficult challenges I faced.”

So whenever the Torah’s view on euthanasia is challenged by well-meaning people who might be watching their loved ones suffer and thus question Judaism’s insistence on prolonging the life of a person who has no life, we must respond that it all depends on one’s definition of “life”. True, their physical life is practically non-existent, but physical life is not called life by Torah standards anyway, just sojourning. True life is defined by one’s ability to reach his spiritual potential by growing closer to G-d and impacting positively on others. So while terminally ill patients might not be living too much on a physical plane, they can be very much alive in the way that they are imparting lessons to their children and loved ones about faith, acceptance, and the fragility of life.

In fact, one could make the argument that the patient who, through his suffering and pain, is teaching his family all types of spiritual lessons, is more alive in the Torah view than the robust, healthy twenty-year-old who lives for no one but himself. I think you’ll agree that Christopher Reeve did far more for humanity as a real-life superhero after the tragic fall that turned him into a quadriplegic than before the accident when he flew around in a cape and leotards acting like a superhero. So who’s to say what defines a life well lived?


Dr. Rachamim Melamed-Cohen is Israel's most famous terminally ill patient. He suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (or Lou Gehrig's Disease), paralyzed from the neck down and waiting to die. Well, not exactly. Melamed-Cohen is not waiting to die. On the contrary, he greets his visitors with a cheerful countenance and a list of projects that would fatigue someone in good health and half his years.

Although confined to a wheelchair, the former National Supervisor of Educational Programming for Israel's Department of Education brims with intelligence, humor and an astounding creative energy. In the past two years, after being connected to life-sustaining equipment, he has authored two books on educational methods and has three more in the works, one of them on the subject of euthanasia. He also lectures, receives a steady stream of visitors and follows the Daf Yomi, a challenging daily regimen of Talmudic study joined by Jews all over the world.

What enables Dr. Melamed-Cohen to overcome the pain and hopelessness that has driven other victims of incurable illness to consider suicide? Self-definition is a large part of it. As he explains, "I don't define myself as 'ill,' or 'a patient.' Rather, I am a human being who has an illness, and who receives treatment. The term 'ill' connotes someone who lies in bed passively and does nothing. I do many things, though I also have an illness." "And I am not terminally ill, no more than anyone else who is eventually going to die. It's already 8 years that the doctors have been calling me 'terminally ill,' but with each passing day I feel less and less terminal." Initially, when he was diagnosed with ALS, doctors gave him 3 to 5 years to live, and he continues to disprove their prognosis.

Equally essential to Melamed-Cohen's determination to carry on is his religious faith. "I feel at times that G-d has allowed me to live in order to show the world that even in such a condition one can continue to be creative and contribute to society... The message of Judaism is that one must struggle until the last breath of life. Until the last moment, one has to live and rejoice and give thanks to the Creator." Melamed-Cohen has gained a certain prominence in the Israeli media for his outspoken opposition to the euthanasia movement. "What is mercy-killing?" he asks. "For whom is the mercy? Is it for the person with an illness? Or is it for the family, so that they should not have to suffer? For the medical establishment, to reduce expenditures? For the insurance companies? Mercy means helping others to live, and with dignity. Helping people to cut their lives short cannot be called mercy." – excerpted from the article Mercy Refined on Am Echad Resources at .

[To learn more about this amazing “terminally ill” real-life superhero, click on: ]

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