V'Zot HaBracha(Deuteronomy 33-34)
Facing Death Properly
Death. We never truly wish to face the fact that one day we will eventually die. Yet, we ignore it at our own peril. We must live our lives in ways that allow us to fulfill our maximum spiritual potential because we know that we will face our Creator after death and we will have to give Him an accounting of our lives.
Of course, we can't become too morbid and let the fact that we will die depress and debilitate us. As long as we are alive, it is healthy not to dwell on death and dying. But we must intellectually be cognizant of the reality of death and as a result live our lives meaningfully.
But how should we face death? How do we handle it when it comes? If someone is diagnosed with cancer and is told that they have but a few months to live, what kind of attitude and outlook should he have? In Parshas V'Zot HaBracha, Moshe bids his farewell to the Jewish People with glorious blessings. Moshe dies with fortitude and trust in God and without fear, serving as an example for us.
Rav Yaakov Weinberg, of blessed memory, passed away in 1999. Rav Yaakov was a mentor of thousands of students throughout his calling as Dean of Ner Yisrael Rabbinical College in Baltimore, imparting his knowledge as to how to live one's life. Through his actions at the end of his life, he also taught many lessons concerning how a person should die.
Rav Yaakov trained himself daily for this task in his high level of concentration during the Shema prayer. The verse states that we must love God with our entire life. The Talmud says that this means we must love Him even when He takes our life - even at death (Brachot 54a). God's taking of our life is seemingly the worst possible thing He could do to us, yet we must feel the opposite. The moment we die is an opportunity to express a tremendous love and trust for God, that He knows what is best for us, even if that means death.
Rav Yaakov did just this, teaching us the conviction that everything God does is for the best.
Close students and family members report that when Rav Yaakov was told that he had cancer and that it had spread rapidly throughout his body, he did not react with shock or fear. He accepted the news immediately without the usual stages of grief. Rav Yaakov's sense of reality and truth was so strong that he had no room for denial or bargaining. He only had room for God's will.
Throughout Rav Yaakov's final weeks, he was calm and focused. When he was asked if he was afraid, he looked surprised at the question, saying, "Afraid? No, I'm not afraid. I know whatever Hashem does is for the best." For Rav Yaakov, God's kindness was a perpetual gift that was always in his consciousness.
In addition, unlike most people who focus inward when they are faced with death, Rav Yaakov maintained his concern and kindness towards others in his final weeks. He was constantly aware of everyone else's needs. He never neglected to thank each and every person who helped him, each and every nurse, each and every cleaning person. He kept smiling until he lost consciousness. Whenever he requested something from someone he apologized for causing an inconvenience.
During Rav Yaakov's last Shabbos, he still made sure to come and sit at the Shabbos table, even though it was nearly impossible for him and took all of his energy and strength. He did this not for himself but for his family. He still said words of Torah concerning Parshas Balak, offering his insights.
That Shabbos, everyone wanted to visit Rav Yaakov. He was not up to seeing visitors at all, but he knew that his students had a need to see him at least one final time to say goodbye. For their sake, he allowed everyone to come in without stop. Rav Yaakov was always a very private man, but this Shabbos, he allowed everyone to come into his bedroom to wish him a 'Good Shabbos.' Rav Yaakov did not even allow his family to rush anyone out. He only had smiles for his visitors, hiding his true agony and physical pain. He did not dwell on himself or his condition in conversations but only on giving guidance, answering other's halachic questions, and encouraging others to learn and teach Torah.
When faced with a visitor who seemed down and depressed at the fact that Rav Yaakov was deathly ill, Rav Yaakov attempted to instruct him that God only does what is good.
"How are you?" Rav Yaakov asked.
"Okay, I guess," was the reply.
"Just okay?" Rav Yaakov asked. "That's not enough. God wants you to be doing a lot better than okay. God wants you to be doing fantastic!"
The message was clear: accept the fact that God loves us. And if He sees fit to take my life now, that too is 'fantastic'.
Rav Yaakov always was a profound thinker and Rebbe. His students knew this. What we didn't realize is that the most powerful and profound lessons Rav Yaakov would teach us, would come at the time of his death.
May Rav Yaakov's lessons always remain with us and inspire us.