“Rabbi, is it OK to end my life?”

It was mid-morning in Florida, and Rabbi Leibel was on the return trip home, having dropped his kids off at school, when he got an unusual phone call. It was Ruth, a nonagenarian who had been living in the assisted-living facility near his congregation. She had relocated recently to about three hours away. She had a son who lived there; why live alone when she can be near her son? She was very happy there. Now her son could stop in and see her anytime.

Everything would have been just fine except that sixA month after Ruth moved, her son died months after Ruth moved, her son suddenly died. He had been an influential member and supporter to the Democratic Party. Ten thousand people attended his funeral. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton recited the eulogy. But now, he was gone. All those people who had known her son were not there to keep her company and assuage her loneliness. Her daughter lived in Rhode Island and came to visit her mother every few weeks, but there was nothing to live for between those visits. Ruth kept to her room, leaving only when she was picked up for her twice-weekly dialysis treatments.

One day Ruth was watching the news and discovered the details of Barbara Bush’s recent death. Mrs. Bush had decided that she was not interested in staying alive, as her quality of life had deteriorated. She instructed her health providers to stop her medical treatment and provide only comfort care. Ruth related to Barbara Bush’s situation, especially as they were the same age. She, too, was drained of the will to live. The dialysis treatments, each lasting several hours, left her weak and tired the rest of the day, unable to do anything other than sleep. Ruth had been toying with the notion of suicide, but she had always understood that it was a sinful act. Now Ruth began to reconsider. “It can be so simple,” she thought to herself. “I’ll stop taking my dialysis, and the misery of loneliness will be over.”

Ruth instinctively felt that this was a grave step for a person of the Jewish faith. She decided to check in with the only rabbi she knew—the one from the Chabad House in South Palm Beach, Rabbi Leibel Stolik.

When Ruth lived on the East Coast of Florida, she was very involved in Chabad and got to know the rabbi, his lovely wife, Rebbetzin Shaina, and their wonderful family very well. And so, that morning, she placed her call.

Rabbis get to deal with many kinds of people and a variety of life situations, but Rabbi Stolik was certainly caught off-guard with her query. Ruth sounded calm, composed and objective—in stark contrast to the momentous magnitude of her question. He was quite surprised to hear a report later from Ruth’s daughter that painted a more emotional picture. “I was standing there watching while they had their discussion. It was one of the most moving and holy experiences of my life. Mom was sitting in her wheelchair, with tears trickling down her cheeks, asking the rabbi about making this choice.”

The disconcerted rabbi needed a moment to collect his thoughts, as his mind churned, seeking the right words. What response can one offer to a lonely woman in her 90s who yearns to be relieved of her misery? But G‑d came to his aid, and an idea flashed in his mind.

He told Ruth about a verse in the Torah that instructsThe disconcerted rabbi needed a moment to gather his thoughts (even pleads): “And you shall choose life!” He explained that for many people, life is not a choice. For those who are in the midstream of life, for the ones who carry important responsibilities or for parents raising children, the drive to live is most compelling. It’s in the case of someone like Ruth that this verse takes on a personal relevance. Indeed, when someone at the age of 92 has a mind as sharp as hers, in full possession of their senses, it really is a “choice” in the fullest sense.

He suggested that maybe the purpose for Ruth’s long life was yet to unfold. “I told Ruth that maybe the purpose of her entire life and existence was to live to 92 and be faced with this challenge, and yet choose life.”

The rabbi made some practical suggestions in the form of two daily exercises: 1) that she should get out of her apartment and connect with people; it didn’t need to be actual conversation, but she should seek to smile to as many people as possible; and 2) she should read something from the Torah every day, even if only for a short time.

Ruth’s daughter tells what happened next.

“Later than evening, Mom told me what the rabbi suggested, and she sounded like she was going to give it a try. She even made a joke about living to be 100 and getting wheeled around the complex smiling at people. Mom is brilliant, funny and when she does pass, I will miss her more than she could ever imagine. But yesterday, I realized two things: one is that our family has a rabbi we can turn to; and two is that I was there to see my holiest of holy mothers ask her rabbi for permission to die. Things that I will never forget.”

Shortly after that, Rebbetzin Shaina happened to notice that Ruth’s daughter’s Facebook page announced Ruth’s birthday. She gathered her children, dialed her number, and they sang “Happy Birthday” to her over the phone.

Nothing makes the world go round like love. That phone call flooded Ruth’s heart with warmth and ignited her incentive to live. Nothing makes the world go round like loveRuth decided immediately that she wanted to move back to the Carlisle in South Palm Beach, where she had lived before the move, to live in proximity to the one family that she cared for and that cared for her. Just about that time, the aide that she had when living here, whom she had liked, called her to say that she was now available. She immediately called the Carlisle, the assisted-living facility she had been in prior to her move. They said they would have an apartment available at the beginning of next month, which was only a week away! Just one week after getting her birthday phone call, Ruth was once again ensconced in her Carlisle suite.

Ruth is now a weekly visitor at the South Palm Beach congregation. She is living a dynamic, vivacious and loving life, loved and beloved by not only the rabbi’s family, but members of the congregation’s close-knit community.

“Early this fall,” says Rabbi Leibel, “on the Shabbat following Simchat Torah, Ruth called me over. She wanted to share a private thought with me—a thought that came to her after her wonderful experiences throughout the month of Tishrei, culminating with all the wonderful joy and dancing of Simchat Torah. ‘What was I thinking when I called you earlier in the spring? I was delusional!’ ”

Aptly, the portion of that week was Bereishit, which means “in the beginning.” Ruth, at the age of 92, had begun her life anew. Even then (at 100 even), one can begin life anew.

Rabbi Leibel is my son. He shared the story on a recent visit.