Rabbi Pete Tobias leads the Elstree Liberal synagogue congregation

Rabbi Pete Tobias leads the Elstree Liberal synagogue congregation

By Rabbi Pete Tobias, The Liberal Synagogue, Elstree

According to popular wisdom, there are only two things in life of which one can be certain: death and taxes (I think we could probably add an early English exit from every major international football tournament to the short list, but let’s not, in the hope that it might one day not be the case).

I don’t think there’s a particular Jewish response to completing a tax return or receiving a tax demand. There are, however, a number of standard formulae to be offered to those who are recently bereaved.

Most common among these is the phrase “I wish you a long life”. It seems to be a uniquely British invention; no other Jewish community appears to have found this particularly meaningless way of escaping from the problem of dealing with our inability to find anything to say to a bereaved person.

The obvious shortcomings of our overused stock phrase are clearly demonstrated in a tale once told to me by a former president of Birmingham Progressive Synagogue early in my rabbinic career. He was attending the funeral of his 94-year-old aunt who had been survived by her 96-year-old sister. He dutifully wished her a long life, to which she responded with some indignation: “Thank you very much, but I’ve already had one.”

Why are we so bad at coping with what I was astonished to hear referred to at a recent Orthodox funeral as the “formal comforting”? That time when we dutifully pass along the line of people on low chairs who usually end up having to comfort us as we struggle to comfort them formally, whatever that might mean.

Many of those present at a funeral or a shivah don’t really want to be there anyway. “At simchas” they say, almost apologetically to acquaintances, as though to emphasise how uncomfortable they are in the presence of death.

Of course, no one likes to be in that presence. Funerals and shivahs are hardly events to be welcomed or enjoyed. Sometimes they are the inevitable conclusion of a lengthy illness, while on other occasions they might be the consequences of shocking and sudden departures, numbing the mind and robbing those present of the ability to do anything other than mutter bewildered wishes for a long life in response to one cut so painfully short.

None of us can choose the time of our death nor, as the Rosh Hashanah liturgy reminds us annually, can we select its cause. I suspect that, given the choice, we might opt for a sudden departure, even though it would leave our distraught relatives and loved ones to deal with the aftermath.

Their shock and trauma seem somehow less painful than a lengthy illness that might gradually wear us down, make us feel as though we are a burden to those closest to us and give them the painful sight of us slowly fading, so that our last breath is greeted with an impossible mixture of grief and relief.

Should the latter be what lies ahead for us, we might do well to contemplate where and how we might like those final days and hours to be spent before the choice is no longer open to us.

Hospitals are wonderful institutions, but they are dedicated to prolonging life and tend to embody that ubiquitous statement of ours, wishing us all a long life. But we can’t always have what we or hospitals and dedicated surgeons might wish. So we need other strategies to prepare for our own passing and that of those we love the most, so that we can find more comfortable surroundings in which last breaths can be taken.

If we are granted the opportunity, our final farewells deserve to be said in a more peaceful and dignified location than the side rooms of crowded NHS wards, or separated from the dying and recovering only by a thin curtain. There are hospices, there is the possibility of spending our last days in the comfort of our own homes – many options for making the inevitable end of our lives more manageable and less traumatic for those closest to us.

If we spent more time considering such possibilities and learning to benefit from them, we might arrive at funerals and shivahs knowing that the deceased had the sort of departure he or she might have wished for. Then, instead of “formal comforting”, we would be able to offer genuine compassion and empathy to those left behind.