I had the honor of providing the closing blessing this morning at the Plaza Jewish Community Chapel's convening on issues related to "The Final Chapter: End of Life Decisions--How Families Navigate Life's Toughest Choices." It was a great morning with some very powerful teaching by Rabbi David Wolpe and Dr. Diane Meier, Director of the Center to Advance Palliative Care at Mt. Sinai Medical Center here in New York. Among Dr. Meier's many awards was the 2008 recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship--her genius shows. Plaza's Stephanie Garry chaired the event and she is such a great professional to work with--I so admire Plaza for its integrity and am proud to be a Board member there.
In my closing blessing I spoke about Psalm 23 as a guide not to the funeral/death experience but as a guide to palliative care, using the commentary on Psalm 23 by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. In examining the opening lines of the Psalm--"The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want; He makes me lie down in green pastures"--Hirsch reminds us that God as the Eternal Source of Life can't possibly want or lack; therefore, one can understand by inference that at every stage of life, even those where there is great pain and suffering in the face of imminent death, one can engage with the Eternal Source of Life and be "shepherded along a path of palliative care." Those green pastures of which the Psalmist speaks are places of comfort, even pleasure, Hirsch argues. "Wherever He allows me to lie down, there a pleasant pasture shall bloom for me. If He summons me to rise up and depart then it is only to reach a more abundant, wholesome peace and rest than my erstwhile camp could have afforded me." Robert Alter chooses to translate it as "In grass meadows He makes me lie down," staying in the pastoral theme, but certainly making another case for the command to provide comfort, or palliative care. Rashi hints that the greenery is watered with dew from the World to Come.
In other words, our engagement with offering care to those who are dying--and as Dr. Meier pointed out, that process of dying can be instantaneous for some or in fact a seemingly miraculous accumulation of years after a terminal diagnosis--is a sacred opportunity to engage the Divine Source of Eternal Life. And our understanding of this Psalm shifts from one we recite or hear in funereal tones but rather becomes a rallying cry for offering support and love to those in need while yet alive.
"God restores my soul," the Psalmist writes. Alter translates "My life He brings back" and Hirsch says, "Over and over again." Each day we experience life renewed. Especially with the lovingkindness we receive and the lovingkindness we give.
"Only goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I shall dwell in the House of the Eternal forever." Hirsch reads this dwelling as a return into, not toward, God. He writes, "Once the days of my wanderings on earth shall be at an end, dying to me will be nothing more than a return home."
For us to have the responsibility and the privilege of helping others on that journey will perhaps one day allow us to merit such care and lovingkindness ourselves.
Of the many ironic lessons we learn from such convenings is the truth that when we face death and allow others to die with dignity and with love, even in the face of death, "we bring back life."