Not uncommonly, in my work over the years in nursing homes, hospitals, and assisted living centers, I encounter someone who will say to me, “Rabbi. Why hasn’t God taken me?”
It is a question, you can imagine, that is unanswerable. All I can do is take a hand, be silent, and look into the eyes of the suffering one, with compassion, trying to understand the gamut of their feelings: that there is no longer joy in remaining alive, either due to debilitating illness, or advanced old age. Sitting up, having to be bathed and dressed, eating, are chores that take too much energy. There is pain, and constant reminders of one’s limitations. I recently took an online prayer-writing class with Alden Solovy, contemporary liturgist, and in our final session he encouraged us to write whatever we wanted. This haunting question came back to me: “Why hasn’t God taken me?” And here is my attempt to give voice to the people behind those questions.
Lament at the End of a Long Life
Adonai, this living has squeezed the juice from me;
I am but a rind, my innards pulp.
I can no longer go out and come in.
You toddled my early self,
You amazed my childhood.
I yearned in my youth
And loved in my ripeness.
I have sought
and found and lost and found again.
I have borne my fruit.
I have searched my ambition
Studied to my achievement
And served with compassion.
I have lived in Your glorious work of art, Creation,
with curiosity, attention, joy and thanksgiving.
I have taught what I learned,
And when I had no more to teach, I simply loved.
I have peeled away the husks to find my soul:
Your spirit that dwells within me.
Wherever you placed me, I did the Tikkun I could.
Thus, I have offered myself in the Temple of Your world.
I have sung my song and danced my dance.
And now I am old;
The trickle in my veins barely nourishes me.
I ache in every part of me.
So many of my dear ones are dead.
Why have you sustained me in this withering?
How is it possible, now, to add to Your Majesty?
What purpose can there be in my suffering?
Is there yet a task for me that I have missed?
If so, keep not this secret from me.
For I am ready,
To give up this body to the Earth
To be remixed into fresh life.
I long to be joined to you
as I yearned for the lover of my youth.
In your mercy,
I beseech you—
Walk by and offer Your hand.
Me’irah Iliinsky is a Reconstructionist rabbi, as well as an artist. She worked as a hospice chaplain for Vitas Healthcare in the San Francisco Bay region, and teaches Torah at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco. Her artwork can be viewed at Versesilluminated.com. She has been a student of and instructor for the Gamliel Institute.