By Rabbi Kliel Rose
(EJNews) – This past Yom Kippur I offered a Dvar Torah on the subject of organ donation. The response was overwhelmingly positive and supportive. Several folks urged me to publish my talk in the EJNews. As such, here is a slightly abbreviated version of the speech I gave on Yom Kippur:
Shortly after I had started my position in my previous congregation I received a call from a woman named Gayle. She had something for me, an annual donation to the Rabbi’s discretionary fund from her father’s estate. “I understand that Rosh Hashanah is in two days and you are very busy preparing, but can I drop it off now?” “Of course,” I replied. She came by my office and handed me the envelope with the donation. As she was about to leave Gayle stated, “Rabbi, you really ought to wish me a happy birthday.” “Oh,” I said, “but I have the birthday list and there is no mention of it being your birthday today, did I miss something?” She laughed and went on to tell me that, it was not her actual birthday, but rather, as she put it, “the day I was reborn.”
You see it had been 20-something years since she received a kidney transplant. Gayle continued to share with me that this surgery saved her life. “Rabbi, you need to learn more about organ donation; please, I want to urge you to speak about it and encourage our members to get involved. Saving a life, is about the most important thing there is in Judaism, right?” One more detail from that encounter with Gayle, this time she was now ten feet from my office door, shouting down the hall with a huge smile on her face leaving me with yet another zinger, “it won’t mean much to people until they know someone who is directly involved and in need of an organ transplant.”
Over the last 18 months that memory has been repeatedly replaying in my mind. I recently learned that a friend’s mom needed a kidney transplant. When hearing this news, I started to ponder what it would be like as a child if the only way my own mother could continue to live with the best quality of life was by way of an organ transplant. Would I not do everything possible to help her find a donor? My mom is an accomplished individual, but her greatest joy is in being a grandmother to her 15 grandchildren. To have her cut off from that sacred role would be absolutely devastating to our entire family.
As we know life is so fragile, how could I not advocate for this issue more actively and make it clear how necessary it is for all of us to insure we have left clear guidelines about donating our organs to someone in need when we pass away.
We are all familiar with that famous Talmudic statement, “A person, who saves a single life, saves the entire world.” (In the Babylonian Talmud the term “Israel” is used to demonstrate specificity to a Jew. Interestingly enough, in other citations the same quote is offered but without any mention of the word “Israel” so that it is much more of a general and universal dictum honoring all people). This teaching underscores the revered Jewish value of Pikuach Nefesh – saving a life at all costs.
In my research, I set out to better understand why someone would choose not to donate an organ or conversely, why there were people in this world of ours who donate their organs to someone they have never met. I started to pick up facts: learning that there are many people who die tragically who would have wished to donate their organs to save a life but could not because they never shared that information with their families while they were still alive. I discovered much more about this area of medicine in my research. To my absolute dismay I found out that Jews were among the two groups with the lowest number of organ donors, even though Judaism permits donations in most cases.
That organ donation is permitted seems to be surprising to many Jews. Many wonder, how can we say that Judaism allows organ donation which requires defacing the body after death and burial with parts missing? The reality is, not only is organ donation legal in Judaism, it is considered a very great Mitzvah. And this is not just in progressive Jewish circles, but even in the most right-wing branches of our religious community. I am unaware of any Halachic authority, in any branch of Judaism that forbids organ donation altogether. Why? It is because the Torah is so clear on this issue. We read in the book of Leviticus, “You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” Maimonides explains the meaning of this Mitzvah, “Anyone who is able to save a life, but fails to do so, violates this Mitzvah.” Saving the life of another is a fundamental principle in Jewish Law. According to Rabbi Isaac Klein z’l, the foremost Rabbinic authority of the Conservative movement in the 20th Century, if a person who has died can save the life of someone else, what better honour could there be to the one who is deceased?
I would suggest that of all times throughout the year this is the exact right season to discuss this subject. On Rosh Hashanah morning, we read a strong and disturbing piece of liturgy, the prayer Unatenah Tokef, “…You, O G-d, are judge and arbiter…. [O]n Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed … who shall live and who shall die; who shall see ripe age and who shall not…” This prayer confirms what we all know; our lives are random. We don’t know who will live and who will die, so it is time to get serious. We have been given another chance. We stand here today fortunate to be alive. This prayer reminds us that today is a day when we need to decide. It is a day when we face the unpleasant, but real decisions that we avoid the rest of the year.
We all have people who we build committed relationships with. Another way to define these kind of relationships is to use the term Brit or covenantal. How will we honor our role in the covenants we have made with our many partners in life? I recently read about a 20-something year-old woman who had made clear to family her intention to be an organ donor. It seemed unusual for someone of her age to have such a deep awareness of her own mortality and the foreknowledge to deal with it. Sadly, she was killed in an accident, and her heart was given to a man who had been waiting four years for transplant surgery. This young woman gifted him a new lease on life. The man who received her heart turned out to be this young woman’s father.
I want each of us to really focus on this one idea, if we make proper arrangements now while we are alive, your final act as Jew may just turn out to be the most important event in your life.
Thus far I have been primarily focused on cadaveric organ donations. The other option I think is more difficult to speak to people about is serving as a living donor. Not all of us can afford the time or money that is required to serve as a living donor; I’m not here to tell you what to do with your body. However, the importance of living organ donations cannot be overstated. Living donor – kidney – transplants are the best option for many patients for many important reasons. (For these specific benefits please consult the Kidney Foundation of Canada, https://www.kidney.ca/living-donation)
In my life, like all of you, I have built covenantal relationships with my family, friends, congregants, and fellow citizens. This year I really hope to honour another covenantal relationship, the one I believe I have with one particular person I have not and am not likely ever to meet. He/she is a person who is need of a kidney. G-d-willing, I am planning (assuming everything works out according to plan) to contribute one of my own organs to this person. I share this not because I want accolades but with the hope that by speaking publicly and committing here in front of all these witnesses I might be able to encourage others to do the same. Ultimately, I do this as a father. Without being too self-deprecating, I am the first to tell you that I am not the greatest dad, husband, Rabbi or anything else in the world. However, that is not my motivation for wanting to contribute a kidney to a stranger. I am acutely aware that my actions in this lifetime will produce my legacy, how I will be known when I am no longer living. I am convinced that my positive actions while I am alive and my concern for another person might one day inspire one of my own kids to do something similar. My deepest prayer is that my children will recognize that being a Jew is understood as the absolute antithesis of selfishness. Furthermore, as a Jew, they will learn that we are accountable to others and required to repair the world at large. Altruism is a wholly and holy Jewish ideal.
On this Yom Kippur may we all find the strength to fulfill the commitments with those we have established sacred covenants with; And may we be guided by the support of our loved ones and by the Creator and Sustainer of all life.
Kliel Rose is the Rabbi of the Beth Shalom Congregation in Edmonton.