If you believe, life has meaning &mdash despite its pains and losses

According to Jewish law, any life is important and should be appreciated and preserved from its birth to its final days of death — regardless of the state the body is in.

Furthermore, says Rabbi Yosef Levin of Chabad of the Greater South Bay, the body does not even belong to us.

“It is a gift given to us by God for safekeeping,” says the Palo Alto rabbi. “Therefore, it is not our decision when to live or die.”

Recently, I flew to Israel to visit my grandfather at Shaare Tzedek Hospital in Jerusalem, where he has been hospitalized since his stroke last year. Never before had my faith in God’s “supreme itinerary” and in Judaism’s moral opposition to questions such as the “right to die” and suicide come under such strong doubt and speculation in my mind.

First, let me tell you about my grandfather — the way he was before the stroke. He always walked with a shiny black cane, wore dark gray suits and a matching fedora — his kippah carefully tucked underneath.

My grandfather was the perfect combination of Old World style meets religious tradition — a reminder of a long-gone era where one was always expected to dress properly and where everyday activities revolved around prayer and God. Each day, he would wake up at 5 o’clock, drink his coffee and slowly make his way up the stairs to the synagogue next door. He was proud, stubborn, strong and pious. Prayer, tradition and family were his life.

When I first walked into that hospital room, I didn’t recognize him — his body limp and paralyzed, propped up with pillows in an oversized wheelchair. His kippah was slowly sliding off his head, down the side of his forehead. His face looked hollow and thin, unshaven and unkempt.

He recognized me and could speak just enough to tell me, in a faint whisper, that everything was fine, be’ezrat ha’Shem (with God’s help).

As always, my grandfather’s absolute faith in God gave his outlook a significant streak of optimism. His eyes, however, told a different story. They were sad, pained and uncomfortable. Everything was not fine.

My grandfather could no longer dress himself, climb the steps to the synagogue or even drink his coffee and eat my grandmother’s food. He could not use his cane, wear his suits or lift a hand to straighten the sliding kippah on his head.

My grandfather’s life before his stroke was in such sharp contrast to his limited existence (as I saw it) that I could not help but question how he could be content or even grateful to God for his current state of being — and how severely his quality of life had been diminished.

Day by day, as my grandfather lay in his hospital bed, immobile and under the humiliatingly tedious care of others (bathing, feeding, etc.), I asked myself whether I myself, in his shoes, would not prefer to overlook Jewish custom and to decide, personally, when and where I had “had enough.”

My grandfather’s rationalization was different. He believed that his quality of life — although altered on the physical level — was still very much intact.

Eventually, when it became very difficult for him to speak, my grandfather resorted to pointing a finger upward when asked how he was feeling, as if to say, “It’s all up to God.” The only time his eyes would suddenly light up was when my uncles prayed at his bedside.

All his life, my grandfather put absolute faith and trust in God. It was only natural that he continued that faith in the face of death.

According to Levin, spiritual death is worse than physical death.

My grandfather lost a lot after his stroke — but his faith, though he was in pain and discomfort, was always there. To my grandfather, that was quality of life.

“Quality” came from religion, God and family. With those values, it was slightly easier to both appreciate and preserve his life to the end — whenever and wherever that may be — as is the Jewish custom.

Michal Lev-Ram, born in Israel, is a journalism major at SFSU who can be reached at

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