Jewish tradition invites us to think about our mortality long before our own deaths. The tradition of writing an ethical will–a letter to one’s children and descendants expressing the deepest principles and most important actions we hope they will carry on–demands that we anticipate and accept the fact that our lifespan is finite.
Jewish ethical wills may be said to have begun with the biblical patriarch Jacob delivering his wishes orally to his children gathered around his deathbed. Jewish texts ancient to modern contain many examples of ethical wills that parents have left to their children.
If dying must be faced, then perhaps–like living–it must also be taught. From the world of Hasidism come many tales of rebbes (rabbinic spiritual leaders) who consciously–or simply by the legacy of the stories of their deaths–teach their followers about how to face death. Many of these stories reflect the belief that one can and should approach the process of dying consciously. One rabbi says, “I am learning how to leave this world.”Another goes to visit his closest disciples to say farewell. A third teaches his followers a new nigun (a wordless tune), asks them to sing it back to him, and departs this world.
According to one story, the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of modern Hasidism, gathered his disciples in his room one morning and instructed them in how to care for his body after his imminent death. His great-grandson, Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav, is said to have had his disciples wash and dress him even in preparation for death. Through the example of their own deaths, they taught the importance of squarely facing one’s own death, and the virtue of attending to another’s burial.
Some contemporary thinkers argue that the traditional emphasis on being at the bedside of the dying is of immense value, not only for the dying person but also for those about to be bereaved–and for all of us, who must learn to face death. Such presence–along with the full range of Jewish customs around dying, death, and burial–counters societal pressure to avoid death and isolate the dying. In Jewish law, a dying person is nevertheless a complete person, to be treated as part of the human community. Being with the dying also helps the would-be survivors avoid the denial of their grief.
Finally, the bedside vigil can also serve the purpose of encouraging the dying person to recite a traditional last confessional, perhaps her or his last rite of passage. This type of confessional occurs throughout the Jewish lifecycle at moments of transition.
Many people are surprised to learn that there is a Jewish deathbed confession, or viddui. Lest the suggestion to a dying person induce fear or lack of confidence in his or her medical care, we are encouraged to remind the person: “Many have said the viddui and not died, and many have not said the viddui and have died.”
The viddui may be said by the dying person or by someone on his or her behalf. It ends with the Shema, perhaps the best known Jewish prayer and the core statement of God’s oneness. In this context, by implication, it can also be viewed as a statement of faith in one’s re-union with the Divine.