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Death Lessons

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.

In 83 active and productive years, my father, Dr. David Medved, taught precious life lessons to his friends, professional associates and, most of all, to his four grateful sons. On March 5th, my brother Harry and I traveled from the west coast of the United States to join my brother Jonathan in Jerusalem to celebrate my dad at a festive birthday party with more than a hundred friends and family members. Six days later, in the midst of the raucous and ecstatic Jewish festival of Purim, my dad died suddenly, peacefully and painlessly. Back in Israel for the week of formal mourning, we’ve been focusing on death lessons that shade and supplement everything we learned from my father in his life.

Put Work in Proper Perspective. My father loved his work – as a ground-breaking physicist and high tech entrepreneur – and he continued toiling away at more-than-full-time hours until the last four months of his life, when his advancing lymphoma finally slowed him down. He achieved great things in his career – designing missile guidance systems, teaching physics at some of the world’s finest universities, qualifying as a scientist astronaut for NASA, starting two successful fiber optics companies and writing a challenging, successful book at age 82 (Hidden Light: Science Secrets of the Bible). Nevertheless, the parade of literally hundreds of visitors we’ve received at the house of mourning (my brother’s home in Jerusalem, just blocks away from my dad’s last apartment) seldom mention his business or scientific accomplishments.

Instead, they focus on my father’s infectious sense of fun and adventure, his unquenchable energy, his love of hiking, camping, rock-climbing, water-skiing, snow skiing (despite serious injuries), motorcycle riding (more grievous injuries—in his seventies!), body surfing, classical music, movies (with comprehensive knowledge of cinematic classics), bawdy humor and impassioned political debate. Most of all, he cherished his family, devoting every weekend to ambitious (and often exhausting) outings in the great outdoors, wrestling with his sons on the living room floor (and threatening the survival of my mother’s furniture), and eventually bringing identically mischievous high-spirits to his nine grandchildren. The same way he conspired with his own kids against my mom’s efforts to maintain some sense of decorum and responsibility, so he enlisted our children in his never-ending crusade against any hint of stuffiness or predictability. Everyone who knew him remembers Dave Medved as a big kid, tender-hearted and ebullient and full of wonder at every new adventure or unexpected pleasure.

He brought that same sense of grateful astonishment to the serious religious explorations he began in his fifties, after two of his sons had already found their way to traditional Jewish observance. He viewed a fresh perspective on some obscure Biblical text with the same delight with which he discovered some new mountain trail, and his boyish enthusiasm lit up every Sabbath table or holiday gathering he ever attended. Ten days before he died he took great pride in reading aloud from the Torah scroll in synagogue to mark the seventieth anniversary of his Bar Mitzvah.

For his four sons (all of whom to some extent feel occasionally consumed by work) this realization should convey the same life-affirming message as the Sabbath itself: reminding us to put our jobs, no matter how exciting and satisfying, in proper perspective. The memories of my father make the case beyond contradiction that a life that’s truly well-lived must honor the distinction between the urgent (often work-related) and the important (usually personal connections outside of work). It’s an old lesson, but one powerfully re-conveyed by the reactions to his death.

Miracles Happen. My father began his story as a miracle child – born in America (the ultimate “land of new life”) after his 48-year-old mother arrived from Ukraine and reunited with her 50-year-old husband following a ten year separation (and the death of six of their children during the nightmare years of World War I and the Russian Revolution). My grandmother assumed she was much too old to start over with a new U.S.-born child, but then her name was Sarah and her precocious baby seemed from the beginning destined for magical outcomes. While his immigrant father made scant economic progress in his work as a barrel-maker, my dad won prizes and scholarships and went on (after Navy service) to an Ivy League education (at the University of Pennsylvania) and three graduate degrees.

My father’s penchant for the miraculous naturally drew him to Israel, the illogically and astonishingly reborn homeland of his forefathers. He made his first of many trips in 1949, shortly after the world recognized the independence of the flourishing Jewish state, and settled there in 1990 after his retirement. That retirement lasted less than a month, before he felt compelled to start a new company (JOLT – Jerusalem Optical Link Technology) and to build a new life in his late sixties and early seventies.

That life proved too fulfilling and demanding to interrupt for illness: he kept his diagnosis with lymphoma a complete secret from even his closest family members, and lived with the disease for nine years before any of us found out. His survival for fourteen years of vibrant and (until the very end) unimpeded living, with the help of chemotherapy, prayer and unassailable optimism, constituted my father’s concluding miracle. Less than fifteen minutes before his death, he talked with his nurses about his plans to celebrate the festive Purim holiday.

The Death Tax is Not Only Ill-Advised, but Evil. For several reasons, we don’t have to deal with the nasty insanity of the inheritance tax as we go through the mourning process for my father. Alas, he failed to accumulate the kind of wealth that would provoke the posthumous attention of the American tax man: even the most radical “reform” proposals of Barack Obama would exempt all estates below one-million dollars, so confiscatory new policies (including a prospective return of a crushing 55% rate!) would leave the Medved family alone. Moreover, my dad made his home in Israel for the last two decades of his life and the Jewish state, though imposing a heavy tax burden in other areas to pay for the nation’s hugely expensive defense forces, avoids inheritance taxes altogether. Israeli leaders rightly understand that death taxes are immoral: they punish families at their most vulnerable moments and tax money that has already been taxed when it was originally earned.

Going through my dad’s things in his suddenly empty apartment, we agreed on assigning various possessions to each of the four brothers—with, for instance, some books and CD’s going to Ben, some candlesticks going to Harry, a dining room table for Jon, a recently purchased laptop for one of our cousins, and so forth. In the midst of this sad but necessary chore, I felt enraged and indignant at the idea that in other families, in other situations, the federal government would claim its own share of everything – and would, in fact, demand more of the material possessions of the deceased than any relative. By what right? How dare they! If an individual chooses to give his resources to the government, of course that’s his prerogative, but how can Uncle Sam insist on crowding out intimate survivors when it comes to dividing a lifetime of wealth?

Aside from interfering with the sacred and healthy desire of parents to leave a legacy for children, death taxes also discriminate in a disgusting way against big families --- because the government grabs its share based on the total amount left behind, not on the extent of the gift to the various heirs. In other words, under typical proposed rules (which may come into play as soon as 2011) a couple with one son would be able to leave him up to a million dollars tax free, with every dollar above that amount taxed at a punishing rate. But a family with five children that wants to divide its estate equally would be able to give each of those kids only $200,000 tax free, before that same obscene rate kicks into force. The effective tax rate for a member of a large family is therefore much higher than for an only child or the member of a small family. The obnoxious penalty against large families also shows that the most common justification for inheritance taxes is, actually, a fraud. If the liberal planners truly meant to prevent “concentrations of wealth” then surely they would cut some slack to estates that were divided among large numbers of family members. A departed head of household who designates many beneficiaries has already elected to “spread the wealth around” and hardly needs the Obama administration to execute the process for him.

At a time of loss and grief and celebratory remembrance of a dearly loved parent, it’s an outrage that mourners – any mourners – should need to fend off the clutches of a predatory government. Why would federal officials want to punish or burden the survivors of a citizen who’s worked, saved, paid taxes and created wealth over the course of a lifetime? Even though the proposals for a renewed, even more diabolical death tax remain blessedly irrelevant to my own father, I hope to honor his memory by fighting with renewed energy (and, yes, joyous energy) to turn back all suggestions of afflicting the bereaved with onerous and unjustifiable assessments.

My father spent his long and happy life passionately animated by a sense of fairness and common sense, so in his honor I hope to stand up against the insanity of governmental theft aimed at the deceased. Dave Medved always appreciated the anti-tax fervor of the founding fathers (taking me as a small boy to Independence Hall and Valley Forge) and would support the appropriate modification of their revolutionary slogan in the ongoing struggle against the death tax: “NO TAXATION --- WITHOUT RESPIRATION!”

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