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Jewish Journal

Where Are You, Jahi McMath?

by Susan Esther Barnes

January 8, 2014 | 12:30 am

Graphic from Wikimedia

For weeks, I’ve been having an internal debate about whether to write about this particular tragedy. If I were to write about it, what point(s) would I want to make that I haven’t seen made elsewhere? What is missing from this discussion?

In case you somehow missed it, Jahi McMath was a 13 year old girl with sleep apnea, a condition which causes a person to stop breathing while they sleep, which leads to several other medical issues. She went into Children’s Hospital in Oakland in order to have tonsil surgery. Tragically, after the surgery, she died.

The issue being debated in the news and social media, at the dinner table and office lunchrooms, has to do with what happened next. While the hospital was trying to save her life, they put Jahi on a respirator. After she became brain dead, the hospital wanted to remove the respirator so her family could begin their mourning process and start making funeral arrangements.

Instead, because the respirator is causing her heart and other organs to continue to function in some fashion, her family refuses to believe Jahi is dead. Last Sunday, they had her body moved to an undisclosed location, since Children’s Hospital is not in the business of caring for dead people, and they were unwilling to keep Jahi’s body on a ventilator indefinitely.

I understand my statement that Jahi is dead may seem controversial to some. However, multiple doctors and a judge, have declared Jahi to be dead. A death certificate had been issued, stating she died on December 12. My purpose here is not to argue about whether or not Jahi is truly dead.

My question is this: Where is Jahi now? I’m not asking where her family has taken her body. I’m asking about the whereabouts of Jahi’s spirit – the essence of who she is. Where is it now?

The Talmud says, when a new person is created, the mother and father supply the different parts of the body, such as the bones, the flesh, and the whites and dark of the eyes. It is God, however, who supplies things like the understanding and the animation to the face. In other words, the parents provide the person’s body, but God provides the spirit. When the person dies, the Talmud says, the parts the mother and father provided remain on earth, while the parts supplied by God return to God.

So, while Jahi’s body remains on a ventilator, has her spirit returned to God? Or is it stuck in some kind of purgatory while her body remains in a state of unrest?

I ask this because there’s a tradition in Judaism that says a person’s spirit, understandably, has a great fondness and feeling of closeness with his/her former body, which housed the spirit while the spirit was on earth. As a result, and perhaps because it can be so difficult for us to let go of the things we love, the spirit hovers near the body until the body is put to rest.

This is one of the reasons we take such pains to be respectful to a person’s body while we wash and dress it, and place it in the coffin. It is why we apologize to the dead person afterward, asking them to forgive us if, during the process, we have caused any offense. It is one of the reasons why someone stays with the body until burial, reading psalms to comfort the spirit hovering nearby.

So, where is Jahi’s spirit now? Is she free to return to God, or is she stuck in this world, hovering near the body, waiting for a burial that may yet be months in coming?

These are the questions nobody else seems to be asking. This is what seems to be missing from the discussion.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Susan Esther Barnes is a religious Reform Jew who can regularly be seen greeting people at her synagogue before services. She is a founding member of her synagogue’s chevra...

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