I live in the United States. My brother lives in Israel. He was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor and his life prognosis is between days and months. I work as a teacher and my job would not allow me to take off more than a few days. Also, financially, I cannot afford to go to Israel twice. Therefore, I feel a conflict of mitzvot (commandments). Should I go to visit my brother when he is alive and miss his funeral or should I wait until he passes away and go to the funeral. Which mitzvah is more important and what would you advise me to do in this situation? How do I balance these mitzvot?
My heart goes out to you and your family for having to confront your brother’s illness and to make these heart-wrenching decisions. I pray for your brother’s refuah (recovery).
Without knowing you or your brother personally, it is difficult to offer a definitive answer to your question. What I can do is lay out some general principles and values to help you make a decision. It is important to keep in mind that in difficult situations like this, there is no absolute right or wrong decision. You have to do what makes the most sense for you and your brother, recognizing that the situation may change at any moment.
In general, Judaism does not place values of one mitzvah over another. The normative principle is mitzvah ha-ba’ah le-yadcha al tachlitzenah (If the opportunity to perform a mitzvah comes to you, do not push it off). That is to say, do the mitzvah which can be performed at this moment without worrying about future mitzvoth that or may not arise.
While Judaism demands that we seek the proper medical treatment and take the advice offered by experts seriously, it also demands of us that we retain our faith in God and in God’s ability to perform miracles. We often pray to God as the Rofeh cholim (He Who heals the ill) and even when the medical prognosis says otherwise, we continue to pray and beseech God to “prove the experts wrong” and heal your brother.
Another question to consider is your brother’s current condition. If he is cognizant and aware of his surroundings, the effect of a visit from a loved one can do wonders for his own peace of mind and in helping him in his fight against cancer. It may also be helpful for you to be able to visit with your brother and talk with him face to face.
From these perspectives, it would seem to me most important to visit your brother now.
However, an argument can be made for “waiting.” There are some people who do not want their last interaction with a loved one to be in a hospital while the person is in a debilitated state. If your brother is not cognizant of his surroundings then the impact of a visit may not be as strong (though there is lots of research that shows that even patients who are unconscious respond to the well-wishes and prayers of their loved ones). Finally, it is worthwhile to consider the laws of death and mourning. Halachah (Jewish law) focuses us in two different ways. On the one hand we have a responsibility to show kavod ha-met – honor and dignity to the dead. Ways in which we show kavod ha-met include ensuring a proper and timely burial, and eulogizing the deceased. At the same time there is an obligation of nichum aveilim (comforting the mourners). This is the primary focus of the week of Shivah in which the community provides for the bereaved by allowing them to reflect on their loss and by providing for their physical needs. It is therefore a legitimate question to ask yourself what will be most helpful and meaningful to you should your brother pass away, God forbid. Some people are most comforted by being at the funeral and observing shivah in the community of the deceased with the rest of the family. Others are most comforted by being in their home community and reflecting on their loss with their friends and loved ones.
As I wrote at the beginning, without knowing you or your family personally, it is impossible to offer a definitive answer to your difficult question. I hope that the values and principles outlined above are helpful in making a decision. Most of all, I hope and pray that your brother defies the odds and recovers from his illness.
First, let me begin by offering my deepest sympathies at this difficult time in your life. I can only imagine how painful it must be to be so far from your brother at a time like this.
Balancing conflicting priorities, particularly when they involve doing mitzvot, can be especially troubling at such times. Your question, as I understand it, is which mitzvah takes priority: bikkur holim (visiting the sick) or levayat hamet (burying the dead)? As important as it is to be present at your brother's funeral (not to mention comforting if he has a family of his own), it seems to me that bikkur holim, being there to support your brother while he is still alive, takes precedence as a mitzvah.
I believe this mitzvah is important both for him and for you. Your brother needs you now more than ever and you need the opportunity to have closure in your relationship with him: to say goodbye, to tell him how much you care about him, and to speak with him this final time is of greatest importance at this time. Besides, Judaism is a religion that celebrates life and not death - helping your brother while he is alive is far more important of flying to Israel to attend his funeral.
While it will be painful not to be able to be at his funeral, by remaining at home you will be able to sit shiva surrounded by your own family and friends in the community in which you live. There will be future opportunities for you to visit his grave, but there may only be more opportunity for you to speak to your brother and help him through this difficult time in his life. I am certain he will understand and I know he will appreciate having you at his bedside.
You do not mention whether your brother has a family of his own. This is my one misgiving about not being there when he passes. I am sure it would be most helpful to his family to have you present. But short of flying to Israel to be at his funeral and to sit shiva, you can stay in touch and call them on a daily basis during the first days after the funeral to offer your support.
May God ease your brother's suffering and your pain. I understand that there are no easy choices in a situation such as this one. I hope that you can be a support to your brother at a time like this.
Most importantly, my condolences to you. May you find comfort in the days ahead and may your friends and community give you support as you move through your grieving.
You correctly identify the problem as a conflict between two important mitzvot: visiting the sick and escorting one to the grave. Both of these commands are included on the listing found early in the morning service which notes those actions from which we benefit in this world while the principle remains for the world-to-come.
You are faced with two equally weighty mitzvot and the tradition offers no guidance on how one might choose between them should that conflict arise, as it has for you. I am personally glad that the tradition does not resolve the question and leaves the question in our hands.
Let me turn from the mitzvot to you. I fully understand the desire to be able to do it all, but for many reasons that is not a realistic possibility. You need to make a choice which is necessarily personal.
I know people whose gut instinct is to be able to have one last visit while the person lives. They may have words that need to be said, they may need to hear a last word from their loved one, they may simply need to hold on to a memory of that person alive and responsive. The tradition cannot know if that describes you. If you are such a person, you should visit your brother while he yet lives.
I also know people for whom the most important moment will be to accompany their loved one to the grave. It is a way to show honor to your loved one. It is a place to speak with those who gather to pay their respects and share their experience of this person who impacted their life. It grants you closure. If you are such a person, you should defer your visit until the time of the funeral.
Neither I nor the tradition can sway the balance for you. That calculation resides in your heart. What I can tell you is that you cannot make the wrong choice. Your choice will express your love for your brother in the best way open to you.
May the Holy One comfort you among all those who mourn.
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