Tuesday, June 22, 2004

“The Point of it All”

““It’s all pointless; who cares what I do?”.

It was the first crisis of my young rabbinic career. I was 22 years old, and a summer intern at a California synagogue. I was on the phone with J.K., a young man who had attended several of my classes, when he started to tell me that his life was awful, his finances disastrous and his family bitterly dysfunctional. He was planning on solving all his problems by swallowing a bottle of aspirin. And he was confiding in me, (an extremely inexperienced Rabbi to-be), his grisly plan. (A call to the psychiatric hotline prevented J.K.’s suicide).

To this day, these words ring in my ears. I felt that I dropped the ball when I spoke to J.K.. With all my Rabbinic training, I wasn't able to answer a basic question: Why not commit suicide?

So let me try again.

Indeed, a long philosophical tradition endorses suicide for the distressed. The Stoic philosopher Epictetus writes: “Above all, remember that the door stands open. Do not be more fearful than children. But, just as when they are tired of the game they cry, "I will play no more," so too when you are in a similar situation, cry, "I will play no more" and depart”. Voltaire, Hume and Schopenhauer are all advocates of suicide. Today, Dr. Jack Kevorkian is the leader of those who believe in a “right to die”.

Philosophy aside, I get the gut feeling that a cavalier attitude towards suicide is often based on the nihilistic belief that “it’s all pointless”. If there’s no point to it all, there’s no reason to bother with a difficult life.

That’s why in Judaism there is no right to die. Life is a sacred gift, and we must survive, even in hellish conditions. Rabbi Ephraim Oshry, the Rabbi of the Kovno ghetto, was asked if it was permitted for someone to commit suicide rather than watch his family be murdered. Oshry’s response, (while filled with compassion), was absolutely not. Indeed, Oshry takes pride in the fact that there were few suicides in the Kovno ghetto, despite the enormous suffering.

Now life in the Kovno ghetto was pure torture. So why is Oshry so fanatical about suicide? Because he realized the value of life. The economics of suicide ordain that life is less valuable than suffering. And that is simply not true. If there is one lesson of Jewish history, it is that a life filled with ideals is worthwhile, even at the cost of suffering. That is why we still have Jews today, despite generations of persecution.

So, this is my belated response to J.K.

Rabbi Oshry and his compatriots suffered more than anyone else in history. Yet, despite their suffering, they persevered because they knew that the future of humanity depends on people who follow their ideals, no matter what the cost.

J.K., that’s the point of it all: idealism. Because life in the service of ideals is worthwhile, despite the suffering.

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