“So teach the number of our days, so that we shall acquire a heart of wisdom.” – Psalm 90:9
The other day I came across quite the footnote in a collection of Hasidic Tales.
The Baal Shem Tov taught that a person is born with a fixed number of words to speak; when they are spoken, the person dies. Imagine that this is true for you. Every word you speak brings you closer to your death. The next time you are about to utter a word, ask yourself whether the word is worth dying for.
What a warning against idle speech! And what a reminder of the power and dignity of our words!
Each word I write on this daily blog about death, too, brings me nearer to my own death.
There is something solemn about this, but also something profoundly invigorating.
“The world will be saved by beauty.” – Fyodor Dostoevsky
I recently returned to the Middle East to continue my practical education in fundamentally human things.
Among the “courses” that I took was breakfast.
The photo above is of my breakfast plate from the Amani Cafe in Nazareth. A dear friend of mine who has been living there for the past two years told me that this cafe was among her favourites.
I was so impressed by this breakfast platter that I wrote the following comment beneath my social media post about it:
The other day, I learned about this interesting section in the Mishneh Torah (Hilkhot Gifts to the Poor 7:3) concerning charity which says:
One is commanded to give to a poor person according to what he lacks. If he has no clothes, they clothe him. If he has no utensils for a house, they buy [them] for him. If he does not have a wife, they arrange a marriage for him. If [the poor person] is a woman, they arrange a husband for marriage for her. Even if it was the custom of [a person who was rich but is now] a poor person to ride on a horse with a servant running in front of him, and this is a person who fell from his station, they buy him a horse to ride upon and a servant to run in front of him, as it is said, (Deut. 15:8) Sufficient for whatever he needs. You are commanded to fill whatever he lacks, but you are not commanded to make him wealthy.
My professor, in remarking upon this passage, noted the two-fold dimensions to charity being discussed here.
First, there is the idea that giving charity involves restoring the person in need to their proper dignity.
Secondly, and perhaps more beautifully, there is the implicit virtue that this demands of showing real attentiveness to the person.
In order to perceive that a person is lacking in some respect, it is necessary to be familiar with their ordinary standard of living.
Anyone who has ever loved someone who experienced profound vulnerability and dependency knows that people have dignity not only for what they can do but simply, and fundamentally, for who they are.
“Quality of life” is not an individual assessment but a community’s responsibility.
I recently came across these words of Rabbi Dr. Yitzchok Breitowitz who says:
The concept of quality of life, per se, is not a relevant idea because any life is worthy of sustaining because there are purposes for a soul to be in the body that we don’t always perceive. Sometimes the purpose of a soul in the body is not because of what the body can do – even if it’s comatose – but the body enables other people to do mitzvos [good deeds] such as pray, give charity, and the like. So sometimes, the purpose of your life is not what you yourself are accomplishing; the purpose of your life is what you are enabling others to accomplish, and that is a great spiritual benefit that will serve this soul well when it goes into the world of truth.
Such a view requires cultivating the ability to receive help, support, treatment, affection, and acts of kindness from others.
Kindness depends on cooperation between the recipient and the giver, between the person in need and the person rendering some form of service.
A seeming “diminishing quality of life” corresponds to increasing need and opportunities to show kindness.
Painting: Visiting the Sick, Modernist Israeli Oil Painting, Avraham Ofek
Lately I’ve been perusing Leon Kass’s book Toward a More Natural Science. Most recently, I read the chapter on prenatal diagnosis which begins with this excerpt:
The chapter you are about to read might never have been written. The same, of course, could be said about any work of writing, for the usual and obvious reasons—not least, because the author might never have been born. But for the present author and the present readers of the present chapter, the accident of our births may now be seen to have been more than usually accidental. Reflect a moment, gentle reader, and take stock of yourself: I suppose that you, too, will discover how fortunate we are to be here. For we were conceived after the discovery of antibiotics yet before amniocentesis, late enough to have benefited from medicine’s ability to prevent and control fatal infectious diseases, yet early enough to have escaped from medicine’s ability to detect, and to prevent us from living to suffer, our genetic diseases. To be sure, my own genetic vices are, as far as I know them, rather modest, taken individually—myopia, asthma and other allergies, bilateral forefoot adduction, bowleggedness, loquacity, and pessimism, plus some four to eight as yet undiagnosed recessive lethal genes in the heterozygous condition—but, taken together, and if diagnosable prenatally, I might never have made it.
After antibiotics and before amniocentesis – this is the in-between we who are alive today straddle.
Kass makes obvious in this paragraph that preventing people from suffering can go so far as to prevent them from living.
Many have a lower threshold for what suffering they will tolerate for others compared to what they could endure themselves. This is something worth bearing in mind whenever we hear words like “intolerable” and “unbearable.” What we ourselves cannot bear or tolerate cannot be the standard for evaluating others’ quality of life.
After all, one of the best qualities of life is the way it continually surprises us.
Today I came upon the Oath of Maimonides. Here is the short text written by the preeminent rabbi, physician, and philosopher of the medieval period:
The eternal providence has appointed me to watch over the life and health of Thy creatures. May the love for my art actuate me at all time; may neither avarice nor miserliness, nor thirst for glory or for a great reputation engage my mind; for the enemies of truth and philanthropy could easily deceive me and make me forgetful of my lofty aim of doing good to Thy children.
May I never see in the patient anything but a fellow creature in pain.
Grant me the strength, time and opportunity always to correct what I have acquired, always to extend its domain; for knowledge is immense and the spirit of man can extend indefinitely to enrich itself daily with new requirements.
Today he can discover his errors of yesterday and tomorrow he can obtain a new light on what he thinks himself sure of today. Oh, God, Thou has appointed me to watch over the life and death of Thy creatures; here am I ready for my vocation and now I turn unto my calling.
The philosopher Robert Spaemann has taught me to understand how there are two kinds of dignity. First, there is the universal dignity that all persons have by virtue of being human. This is also discussed within bioethics as fundamental human equality. Secondly, there is dignity that accords with a person’s particular worthiness owing to the virtue of an office, rank, or moral excellence.
Some healthcare professionals purport to have such neutrality and objectivity so to be inclined to treat every person equally according to the first kind of universal dignity characteristic of all human beings.
But persons, being persons, have a natural regard for both kinds of dignity.
On September 11th, I am remembering my visits to the 9/11 memorial in New York City.
Earlier this year, I listened to this interesting podcast episode by Malcolm Gladwell discussing both the 9/11 memorial as well as memorials for the homeless. If that sounds intriguing to you, click here.
The 9/11 Memorial and Museum has a lot of elements that very much reveal the character, spirit, and approach of the American people to tragedy, patriotism, and the value of human life.
Here are some snaps from my visits:
The other day a friend of mine shared this profound aphorism from Nicolás Gómez Dávila which says:
Death is the unequivocal sign of our dependence.
Our dependence is the unequivocal foundation of our hope.
In 1993, a Canadian Supreme Court judge included the following statement in his decision:
“Although palliative care may be available to ease the pain and other physical discomfort which she will experience, the appellant fears the sedating effects of such drugs and argues, in any event, that they will not prevent the psychological and emotional distress which will result from being in a situation of utter dependence and loss of dignity.”
Here “utter dependence” is conflated with a “loss of dignity”, not the foundation of our hope.
This is a quick post to direct you over to Ruth Graham’s interesting piece in The New York Times about a man on death row who is trying to get permission (through a lawsuit) for his pastor to lay hands on him before he is killed.
Sister Helen Prejean is quoted in the article as an advocate for the inalienable dignity even of criminals saying, “You uphold the dignity of the human being, that everyone is worth more than the worst thing they’ve ever done.”
One thing that I find striking about this story is the spectrum of human contact.
The prisoner, John Henry Ramirez, stabbed a man named Pablo Castro 29 times. In a robbery that yielded $1.25, Ramirez slit Castro’s throat and stabbed his head, neck, and shoulders.