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Q My uncle is terminally ill from cancer and suffering greatly. Can I pray for him to die?- B.K., New York
Rabbi Shlomo Brody: Those of us who have experienced an agonizing extended death of a loved one certainly share your pain. Modern medicine allows doctors to heal - or at least to keep alive - many patients who in previous decades would have died quickly. The blessing of greater life expectancy, however, does not always improve quality of life, and in certain circumstances keeps people alive in excruciating conditions. While controversies over euthanasia and withholding treatments dominate public debate, the independent question of our prayers deserves greater attention.
Judaism attributes great importance to preserving life, with the Mishna going so far as to state, "Anyone who saves a life is as if he has saved an entire world" (Sanhedrin 37a). One does not even possess the autonomy to harm oneself, as Judaism prohibits suicide and all forms of self-mutilation. Nonetheless, even life gets trumped at times by other values. Jewish law allows for the death penalty, sends soldiers out to battle and demands one be killed rather than commit idol worship, illicit relations or murder.
In our case, the question remains whether Judaism attributes enough value to the quality of life to allow one to pray for the suffering patient to die. (To reiterate: This question remains independent of the propriety of "mercy killing" and less drastic forms of active, physical intervention.)
Classic sources attribute certain spiritual benefits to the experience of suffering. Pain is regularly understood not only as divine punishment, but also as atonement. "Suffering erases all of a person's sins," the sages declared (Brachot 5a). The process of repentance that anguish should spawn, moreover, brings humans closer to God, as the psalmist exclaims, "I found trouble and sorrow; then I called upon the name of the Lord" (Psalms 116). Consequently, other sources speak of suffering as a sign of God's love or purifying experiences to make one worthy of the world to come. However, these "benefits," so to speak, remain a silver lining, with affliction seen as an undesirable curse. When asked whether they welcomed a period of suffering, one group of sages hastily responded, "Not it nor its reward!" (Brachot 5b).
Noting that we violate Shabbat to treat someone on his deathbed, even though death is imminent, Rabbi Eliezer Waldenburg (Israel, d. 2006) concluded that every breath remains valuable and that one should never pray for an ailing person to die (Tzitz Eliezer 9:47). He cited a remarkable talmudic statement deeming it meritorious for an otherwise righteous adulteress (sota) to have a protracted, painful death rather than to die quickly (Sota 20a), proving that life always remains precious, especially given the spiritual implications of suffering. God will decide the fate of all, but we must do everything we can, including prayer, to extend life.
Several talmudic stories, however, seem to encourage beseeching God to end the anguish of the terminally ill by allowing them to die. The handmaiden of Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi prayed for her ill master to die, with her requests ultimately answered over the fervent entreaties of his students, who declared a special fast day for his recovery (Ketubot 104a). Rabbi Akiva, moreover, criticized his students for not visiting the sick enough, as it callously prevented them from "praying for their recovery or their death" (Nedarim 40a). As Rabbeinu Nissim (14th century, Spain) explained, the very least we can do for those who suffer with no chance of recovery is to pray for the end of their suffering through death.
This position was adopted by modern decisors like Rabbi Yehiel M. Epstein (Aruch Hashulhan YD 335:3), Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (Igrot Moshe CM 2:74) and Rabbi Shlomo Goren. The fact that we violate Shabbat in all life-endangering situations highlights the extent we go to preserve life, but does not preclude us from desiring a merciful death from God. One suggested prayer reads, "Please God, with the power of Your great mercy, and with Your great benevolence, may it be Your will to take the soul of so-and-so out from its closed prison to relieve him from his suffering, and may his soul return to the God who gave it to Him" (Encyclopedia of Jewish Medical Ethics III:1062).
A nuanced position was taken by Tel Aviv Chief Rabbis Haim Halevi and Yisrael Meir Lau, who contend that caretaking relatives may not pray for death as this might reflect a desire (conscious or otherwise) to relieve themselves of their burdensome filial responsibilities. Others feel most comfortable with beseeching God for mercy on the sick person by all means, not precluding death, but without explicitly praying for their demise (Be'er Moshe VIII 239:4).
May God provide mercy and comfort to the terminally ill and their loved ones that care for them.
The writer, on-line editor of Tradition, teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel and is pursuing a doctorate in Jewish philosophy at the Hebrew University.