What does the Torah have to say about a person making concrete plans for the eventuality of her death? Is it appropriate to sign a health care proxy or to make out a will?
There is no better example than our patriarch, Jacob. When this week’s parsha (Torah potion), Vayechi, opens, Jacob is getting older and sees that his death is not far off. So, what does he do? He plans for it. He calls Joseph to his bedside, refers explicitly to his impending death (“I will lie down with my fathers”), and makes arrangements for his burial.
G-d willing, we will all live a long, long life — but we will all die eventually. This is not planning for a tragedy; it is planning for an eventuality, for a natural event that is part of G-d’s world.
Here’s the puzzling thing though: We know this, and yet, we often don’t act on it. How many of us avoid signing our own proxies? How many of us avoid talking to our parents about formulating an advance medical directive or choosing health care proxies because we would rather not speak about such unpleasant things or are afraid of upsetting our elders?
We need to do better. Taking such concrete steps like choosing a health care proxy and discussing our wishes, both personal and religious, ensures that our requests are fulfilled in a situation where we cannot communicate for ourselves. It is also a profound act of caring for one’s family. It saves those left behind from the agony of not knowing what they should do or if they have done right by us. And it protects families from fighting over the right thing to do.
Talking to one’s parents about this can be difficult. We fear the reaction (“So, are you waiting for me to die?!”). But there are ways to have the conversation with sensitivity. Perhaps: “Mom, I love you and I hope you live for many, many more years. But when that time comes, I want to make sure that we are doing everything we can for you, and that it is in accordance with your wishes.”
Oftentimes, parents are relieved and grateful for the opportunity to talk realistically about their futures. Elders most fear losing their independence, being a burden, and losing their cognitive capacities, so a dignified opportunity to discuss these fears is very much welcomed. Thus, it may be the adult children who are fearful of facing the natural progression of life and death.
And when it comes to making out a will, we tend not to have the same reservations. Many people do make a will when they got older. But often people feel that there is no need to do this when they are younger, say in their 30s or 40s. And yet, sometimes people die young. We should not let concerns of considering such unpleasant possibilities get in the way of being responsible and taking care of our family by asking: Whom do I trust to raise my children, and how will they be provided for financially?
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein was once asked whether a person is allowed to buy life insurance, or whether this would reflect a lack of bitachon, faith in G-d. He responded unequivocally that to buy life insurance is permissible and religiously desirable (Igrot Moshe OH 2:111, 1963). Rav Feinstein draws on multiple midrashic sources to demonstrate that faith in G-d means a belief that G-d gives us the strength, and will continue to give us the strength, to do what we need to do to provide for ourselves and our loved ones. But we must do our part, which includes not only getting a job rather than waiting to win the lottery, but also planning for the future.
In a later responsum (IM OH 4:48, 1965), he was asked to opine on whether a person with limited means should buy term life or whole life insurance. Taking his cue from the provisions in the ketubah (marriage contract) that were instituted by the rabbis to protect the financial interests of a man’s wife and children after his death, Rav Moshe concluded that term life is preferable. Whole life is an investment that bears returns during one’s life; term life is an insurance policy to ensure that one’s family is provided for in case of an early death. For Rav Moshe, a person must not only earn money now, he must also plan for the future and for his loved ones.
Nowhere in either responsum does Rav Moshe raise the concern of ayin hara (invoking the evil eye), not even when he discusses buying theft, fire, or car insurance, events that could be tragic and that are not inevitable. Taking these concrete steps is simply living up to our obligation to take care of ourselves and our families.
After Jacob makes practical plans for his death and burial, he gives out blessings — first to Joseph’s children and then to all of his children. If we take care to get our affairs in order, to make sure that our family is provided for and that our wishes for the end are known, then we will have truly left them with a great blessing.
By Rabbi Dov Linzer
Rabbi Dov Linzer is the Rosh HaYeshiva and Head of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School. He lectures and publishes widely, and is the host of many podcasts including Iggros Moshe A to Z. Rabbi Linzer will be visiting the DC area on Jan. 4-5, 2019 as scholar-in-residence at Kesher Israel Congregation in Georgetown.