A short teaching from Reb Zalman on how prayer can change our minds
This week's portion: deathbed blessings, deathbed curses

A prayer before departing this life

Water-drop-drop-ripples-art-poster-printOn my first day of hospital chaplaincy training, I was surprised to discover that one needn't be Christian in order to baptize a baby. One need only say the words with intention.

Those of us in my chaplaincy cohort who were Jewish, or Muslim, or came from traditions which don't do infant baptism, had a lot of conversations that year about how we might handle that situation if it came up. Our hospital's policy was that we only provided baptism in cases of extremis, for babies who were near death or too ill to leave the hospital and be baptized in their home community. (My plan was that I would ask the parents if they wanted to say the words, since as Christians they would find the words more meaningful than I, and I would seek to sanctify the moment with my presence.) Though I thought about it and planned for it, I was never called-upon to serve in that way.

But I did have many experiences with those who were dying. On my first day, when I learned that fascinating tidbit about baptism, I also learned that the Catholic sacrament of the sick -- formerly known as "last rites" -- does require a priest. If a Catholic patient were near dying, we were instructed to call the priest on call and get him in there. During the day, there was usually a priest in the hospital with us; overnight, the on-call priest would be elsewhere, though would come if we paged him. I remember one of the hospital's on-call priests teasing us that if we woke him at 2am for someone who turned out to survive until dawn, he was going to be very miffed at us for ruining his sleep. (He was kidding.) And I remember times when I had to call him in the middle of the night. That was the year I began learning about Jewish customs having to do with sickness and death. I'm pretty sure it's when I first encountered the deathbed vidui.

I've written about different forms of the vidui before. "Vidui" means "confessional prayer," and it comes in several forms. There's one version of it intended for daily use, which really speaks to me, and which I try to say every night before bed. There's another kind of vidui which we say on Yom Kippur. And then there's the one which the tradition instructs us to recite before death. Though there's nothing wrong with saying it at a different time. If needed, the prayer can be recited more than once. There's no superstition attached to it, it's not as though saying it "too soon" will somehow bring death sooner, there's nothing wrong with saying it and then surviving and getting to say it again another day. What the tradition teaches is, when death is imminent (whatever that means to you), it's appropriate for the ill person (or someone else on his/her behalf) to offer a vidui. Here's the version of that prayer which is found in the Reform Rabbi's Manual:

Deathbed Vidui

My God and God of all who have gone before me, Author of life and death, I turn to You in trust. Although I pray for life and health, I know that I am mortal. If my life must soon come to an end, let me die, I pray, at peace.

If only my hands were clean and my heart pure! I confess that I have committed sins and left much undone, yet I know also the good that I did or tried to do. May my acts of goodness give meaning to my life, and may my errors be forgiven.

Protector of the bereaved and the helpless, watch over my loved ones. Into Your hand I commit my spirit; redeem it, O God of mercy and truth.

  יְיָ מֶֽלֶךְ, יְיָ מַלַך, יְיָ יִמְלֹך לְעוֹלָם וַעֵד / Adonai melech Adonai malach Adonai yimloch l’olam va’ed.
(God reigns; God has reigned; God will reign forever and ever.)

בָּרוּךְ שֵׁם כְּבוֹד מַלְכוּתוֹ לְעוֹלָם וָעֶד. / Baruch shem k’vod malchuto l’olam va’ed.
(Blessed be God’s name whose glorious dominion is forever.) 

שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל, יְיָ אֱלֹהֵינוּ, יְיָ אֶחָֽד: Shema Yisrael Adonai eloheinu Adonai echad.
(Hear, O Israel: Adonai is our God, Adonai is One.)

Here is an alternative vidui prayer -- one which speaks in slightly more Jewish Renewal language:

Alternative Deathbed Vidui

 I acknowledge before the Source of All that life and death are not in my hands. Just as I did not choose to be born, so I do not choose to die.

May my life be a healing memory for those who knew me.

May my loved ones think well of me, and may my memory bring them joy. From all those I may have hurt, I ask forgiveness.

To all who have hurt me, I grant forgiveness.

As a wave returns to the ocean, so I return to the Source from which I came.

שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל, יְיָ אֱלֹהֵינוּ, יְיָ אֶחָֽד: Shema Yisrael Adonai eloheinu Adonai echad.
(Hear, O Israel: Adonai is our God, Adonai is One.)

As I learned in my "From Aging to Sage-ing" class in rabbinic school, it's also possible to write one's own deathbed vidui, to recite in addition to the traditional one. (You can find many other variations, as well as some beautiful deathbed practices and prayers, at Alison Jordan's website Vidui Variations -- a website which I find deeply valuable and which I higly recommend.) And I've formed the practice in my rabbinate that if no vidui was recited before death by the person who has died, or by someone else in that moment on their behalf, I will sometimes recite one on behalf of that person's soul at the funeral, before interment. I think healing is often possible for those who are present when they hear this intention of letting go of grudges and seeking forgiveness for the places where one has missed the mark.

I frequently teach about the tradition which says that one should make teshuvah -- repent; atone, return to God -- the night before one's death. Of course, who among us knows when that night is coming? Therefore our tradition teaches us to make teshuvah every night before we sleep. (This is one of the reasons behind saying the nighttime vidui as part of the bedtime shema: saying "I forgive anyone / who hurt or upset me or offended me..." allows us to let go of our angers and our hurts before we sleep, so that if we should die in the night, our souls are not encumbered by all of that baggage.) For me, one of the most important parts of making teshuvah is trying to let go: of the places where I've screwed up, of the places where other people have screwed up, of my unmet expectations. For those of us who aren't near death (as far as we know), that's an ongoing process. For those who may be aware that death is coming, I imagine that the urgency of that work might feel heightened.

I suspect that most of us feel the natural inclination to not want to think about death -- our own, or that of our loved ones. Our culture teaches us to focus on the positive, to anticipate happy outcomes, not to talk about the inevitable reality that life is finite and that all of us will someday die. But Jewish tradition offers us a lot of tools and technologies for navigating this transition -- both the transition of the person who is dying, from this life into whatever comes next, and the transition of the family and friends who will move from anticipation to mourning and grief.

Jewish tradition acknowledges that death is real, that it will happen to all of us, that it is natural and normal. (I'm thinking here of our funeral customs, including the gentle washing and dressing of the body performed by the chevra kadisha, and of the custom of burying our dead in simple linen garments and biodegradable pine boxes. No wreaths of cut flowers, no enbalming or cosmetics to allow us to pretend for the duration of the funeral that our loved one is merely "sleeping.) For those who walk the mourner's path we have the traditions of shiva and shloshim (the first week and month of mourning), the recitation of the mourner's kaddish, and other prayers and psalms to help ourselves heal and perhaps to help the soul of our loved one ascend along its path. For those who are caring for mourners we have a rich tradition of nichum avelim, comforting the bereaved.

But for those who are preparing to die, the vidui is one of our most powerful tools for cultivating acceptance and for letting go gracefully and at peace.


For more on this:  Dr./RP Simcha Raphael  works as a death awareness educator, and I can recommend his  book Jewish Views of the Afterlife.