Editor’s Note: This guest post was written by Howard Greenberg and Dr Edmond Weiss of M’kor Shalom in Cherry Hill, NJ, based on a program they presented at the congregation.
Talking with a spouse or an adult child about the future, especially about how we want to be treated at the end of our lives, can disturb the peace in an otherwise tranquil family. Is it worth it? Is it worth anyone’s tears or sudden loss of temper or hurtful outburst?
Shalom Bayit (pronounced shlom bayit) is the essential, Jewish ethical idea that keeping peace in one’s household and community can be more important than telling the truth or even strictly enforcing the commandments. For example, God lies to Adam about the consequences of eating the forbidden fruit. And, most famously, God even even lies to Abraham to prevent him from being hurt by Sarah’s commentary on his virility.
We are encouraged by our sages to refrain from conversations and remarks that make others uncomfortable, especially our own family members. We try not to embarrass or befuddle others. If a certain statement would make others squirm, we are taught that it’s best not to say it, or even tell a half-truth that makes it go away. Above all else: Peace and harmony.
What the notion of Shalom Bayit does NOT address, though, is the conflict between family peace in the present and family peace in the future—especially when someone in the family is terminally ill. Those volunteers and professionals who visit the homes and hospital rooms of the dying, those who are present at the vigils and in the final hours, can regale you with stories of families who are suffering not only from the impending loss, but also from the pain of not knowing what to do.
It may well be that discussing end-of-life wishes causes discomfort, embarrassment, sadness, or even fear. It may even be that the traditional notion of Shalom Bayit forgives us for not having those discussions while we’re younger. But it is still the best way we know of protecting our families from the agony, dissension, and recrimination that happen often when we do not know how our family members want to spend the last chapter of their lives.