My father, Reb Marvin Leff, died a month ago from an uncommon disease called neuroendocrine cancer and liver failure.
He spent the last few weeks of his life in my sister’s home in Teaneck, NJ. He wasn’t hooked up to any machines but simply became weaker and weaker as his body was shutting down. He couldn’t get out of bed for the last few days of his life.
A number of weeks before he died we all got together for Shabbat in my sister’s house, all the children and grandchildren. We wanted to spend time with my father and show him encouragement and support.
My father with my oldest son, Avrami
He came to all the Shabbat meals, gave beautiful blessings to all of us individually on Friday night, and though subdued, was part of the discussions at the meals.
Toward the end of the third meal when all of the younger grandchildren had left the table to play, he began to speak. He gave the most important talk of his life.
“It is very, very difficult.
“I was lying in the hospital this week coming to terms with what the doctors were saying. What does one think about while lying in the hospital under these circumstances?
“One thinks about his life, the past, things that I could have done better, mistakes that I made. I have begun to fully internalize my situation and I am trying to accept the reality that I am totally dependent on others for all of my needs. I have been independent for my entire life, and even more so since Mom died five years ago. Now, I cannot help myself at all and the words “Master of the World” have great new meaning to me. Hashem, God, is the Master of my life.
“Of course, He always was, but when you are healthy and independent, you more or less feel as if you control your life. We give lip service to God, but we all too often feel it is all about us. Now I see as clearly as I possibly can that it is only He who controls everything, now, and He did throughout my life.
“So, I am trying to work on my faith. I am trying to accept the fact that if God sees fit to end my life soon, then this is for the best, even if I don’t understand it. One day we will understand why the pain and suffering in our lives had to occur, but we don’t know God’s ways in this world. But I am working on accepting His will
“I am also working on maintaining a pleasant disposition, especially to those who are caring for me, despite the fact that I am experiencing discomfort and it is very painful to be so dependent on others. These are the areas I am trying to work on.
“I hope that you will all remember me for good as I leave this world, and in the future we will all dance together in Jerusalem when the resurrection of the dead, occurs.”
When my father finished, we were all speechless. We never heard someone speak so openly about their impending death.
We never saw someone accept his death with such faith in God.
After a silent pause, we began singing Hebrew songs of faith, while we individually approached Dad and gave him a hug and a kiss.
I whispered in his ear, “That was the most important speech I ever heard in my entire life!”
Saying Goodbye –
My father gave blessings and parting words of advice to visitors, family and friends, speaking openly about his death. He even discussed how he wanted his funeral to go.
The last time I saw him was with my wife and eldest daughter, Atara, just a few days before he died. He hadn’t seen Atara for almost an entire year because she was studying in Israel. Atara was still in Israel for that family gathering on the Shabbat after Shavuot. So, when Atara returned to Baltimore, we drove up to Teaneck, spent some time with him, and returned the same day.
When we entered the room, my father was in bed with his eyes closed. This was the first day he had felt too weak to even get out of bed. We roused him and when my father saw Atara, his face lit up and he gave a big smile, possibly his last smile in this world.
He then said in a very weak, almost whispering voice: “I haven’t seen you for a whole year. You look beautiful! But I have to tell you that I am nearing the end of my life. I am going to the next world. We live our whole lives to get there and we can only take righteous deeds with us. Never forget that this is the entire point of life. Marry well and live your life for God and the Torah.”
Not an Easy Challenge –
Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe writes,
“Even at the final moments of a person’s life he thinks all of the same thoughts which he thought throughout his life. All of his pettiness, hateful feelings, vengeful thoughts, physical fantasies and desires, and lack of serenity will be with him. They do not magically fade away simply because he is on his death bed.
“Yes, the day will come when God will take your life, and you will not have fulfilled even half of the desires on your agenda. You will feel that there is a great deal which you still want to accomplish. You will strongly want to stay in the world to see your children and grandchildren prosper. You will want to remain in order to do something which will make you world-famous. Yet, suddenly, you feel yourself slipping away without much of these goals attained.
“At these moments, when you see the angel of death before you with no hope of escaping him, you may have the instinctive desire to lash out at your Creator, even to the point of heresy.
“How is it possible to feel love toward God at the time when He takes your life away? How is it possible to feel no bitterness toward your Creator when surrendering your body and soul to Him? This can only be accomplished if one works on his faith for many, many years prior to his death.” (Paraphrased from Alei Shur, Volume 1, pgs. 300-301)
I have learned many things from my father, but the way my father died, with great courage, acceptance, and faith in God, was the most important lesson I ever learned.