Why Live With Sickness?

I visit my uncle in a hospice. He has “yeneh machla (cancer).” The pain medication as well as his terrible weakness make him sleep a lot. When he is lucid, he is very depressed. He says, “Why are they keeping me alive? I can’t learn, I can’t do mitzvos. There’s no purpose to my existence. Why doesn’t Hashem just take me?” What can I say to him?

 * * *

I once visited a woman who was made blind and totally paralyzed by a terrible disease. She could not even see her children. He was bedfast and needed total care. She made the same statement: “There’s no purpose to my existence.

I told her the Talmud. that Rabbi Eliezer fell seriously ill, and his students came to comfort him. R’ Tarfon said, “Our master! You are dearer to us than the rain. The rain can provide a person only with this world, but you, our master, have provided us with the World to Come.” Rabbi Eliezer remained silent, and did not acknowledge him.

R’ Yehoshua said, “Our master! You are dearer to us than the orbit of the sun. The sun can provide a person only with this world, but you, our master, have provided us with the World to Come.” Again, Rabbi Eliezer remained silent.

R’ Elazar ben Azaria, “Our master! You are dearer to us than a father and mother. A father and mother can provide a child only with this world, but you, our master, have provided us with the World to Come.” Rabbi Eliezer did not acknowledge this student’s comment either.

Then Rabbi Akiva spoke up. “Suffering can be precious,” he said. Rabbi Eliezer said, “Help me sit up so that I can better hear what my child, Akiva, has to say.”

The other students had said things which should have comforted Rabbi Eliezer. Why did he ignore them and listen only to Rabbi Akiva?

Resting on one’s laurels is ga’avah (vanity) and achieves nothing. Rabbi Eliezer valued life because it provided him with the opportunity to do Hashem’s will. But he was now weak and bed ridden and could do nothing. This depressed him, and the fact that he had achieved much in the past did not comfort him in the least. He could be comforted only if there was something he could do now.

What Rabbi Akiva said was that Hashem’s will is that a person should maximize oneself spiritually. This is what man was created for, and maximizing oneself in the service of Hashem is the only thing that Rabbi Eliezer felt was of value. However, in his condition, he did not see what he could do that would be spiritually fulfilling.

Rabbi Akiva said that avodas Hashem consists of doing whatever one can do at any particular moment, given one’s condition at that moment. What he told the master was essentially, “When you had the ability to teach, your tafkid (assignment) was teaching. Your condition now does not permit you to do that. All you can do now is accept your suffering with trust and faith in Hashem’s justice, and when you do that, you are fulfilling your tafkid every bit as much as when you taught us.”

Hagaon Rav Eliyashiv shlit”a was challenged by a person who was in great pain, and questioned why he had to live. Rav Eliyashiv said that ubacharta bachaim (you shall choose life), to choose to live even when one is suffering is a mitzva just like putting on tefillin.

You can tell your uncle that even in his present condition, he is still able to perform a greatmitzvah.