“It is a war. And it is a war we have to win.”
The speaker, in this war-torn part of the world, was, for a change, not a Jew and not talking about “the situation,” or even about an actual war. The speaker was an Arab, the war was against a life-threatening disease, and he was speaking to me, not as an adversary but as an intimate. We were sitting, Jews and Arabs, in every manner of religious and ethnic display — kaffiyehs, shtraimlech, burkas, yarmulkes, and the occasional cross — in the corridor, waiting our turns, in the Radiology Unit of Hadassah Hospital, Ein Kerem.
We are fellow cancer patients.
It took me a few seconds to respond, though I did quickly nod my head in agreement, mainly to be sociable. This was not the time or place for a deep philosophical argument, even if I was able to do it full justice in my passable Hebrew. I responded with a sympathetic glance, and the single word, “ken”— yes. But I didn’t believe it. Not really. Despite the fact that I come here, nearly every day, for two months — 41 treatments–to receive radiation to attack the tumors growing in my prostate gland — a cancer which took my father and for genetic reasons may likely do similarly, one day, to me. Put simply, paradoxically, and perhaps foolishly, I was waging a war I didn’t fully believe in.
“Lungs,” he pointed to his chest.
Having been no stranger to some of what are euphemistically called “the vicissitudes of life” I had come to believe — really, to understand — that suffering and misfortune were a language of God; they were communication. My cancer — and I emphasize the word “my” because it is as much a part of me as my eyes and mouth, and therefore the source of my ambivalence at attempting to extirpate it — was, if nothing else, God telling me, ‘you don’t have forever.’ And, while the prognosis “good” pronounced by my doctor suggested that the likelihood was still a long ways off, nevertheless, it felt like I was being introduced to my killer, in the most intimate of ways: he was inside me, he would bide his time in response to the measures taken to restrain him, but he was unlikely to wait forever–his patience was limited. But for now, my cancer was telling me, God was not letting me out of this world without my learning with some urgency at least a few more things, even if they needed to be learned literally at the cost of my own flesh.
Far from viewing cancer as my enemy, I viewed it as a gift, for which I was profoundly grateful.
As I sit on line, waiting my turn for radiation, patients emerge and on their way out, wish us, refuah shlema — get well, and we respond todah, gam lachem — thanks, you too. Everyone here shares something deep inside them which has caused them to draw closer to a stranger, and it is not just our common illness. The illness has but compelled our attention to the thing most deeply shared among us — our humanity, or more precisely, our mortality. The fleeting shadow of death, the ultimate separator, has joined us together; death has brought us all more powerfully to life.
My doctor is originally from Strasbourg, France. In our first meeting my first questions were on his background and on what brought him to Israel. He related that his father, like mine, was originally from Poland and, just like mine, survived the Holocaust exiled in work camps in Siberia. After the war, his parents wound up in France, mine in America. Now, the children of these two families would yet make new homes minutes apart in Jerusalem, meeting as doctor and patient, describing a vast arc across a chasm of suffering and history, finally coming full circle precisely in the manner prophesied thousands of years ago by Yirmiyahu and Yeshayahu. Once upon a time, the Navi tells us, Yirmiyahu, in the shadow of the first destruction, needed to publicly buy a field in this vicinity to demonstrate prophetically to a despondent people that one day they will again build houses and buy fields in this place. I and my doctor were in the mind’s eye of Yirmiyahu. My cancer has brought us —all three of us — together.
As I was sitting on line waiting for my treatment, the nurse walked by and glanced down at me, learning from a religious text. She remarked, “ashrecha” — fortunate are you. As I walked out of the hospital, I thought, full of emotion, is it not worth cancer to hear that remark, and all it represents? Is it not worth even a lifetime?
As I was studying the Haggadah this past Pesach, just days before my first treatment, I thought about the passage that we say when we open the door for Elijah the Prophet: “shfoch chamatcha el haGoyim”— pour out your wrath on the nations that did not know you…for they have devoured Jacob, and laid waste his habitation…”
How odd, I thought, that in the middle of the Hallel — the unqualified praise and thanks to God which is the centerpiece of the seder — comes this interlude of vengeance and animosity against those who sought to destroy us. It appeared incongruous. As I thought about the passage, I understood something very profound. Each of the verses that made up this passage was taken from several different sources, all of which were devoted to churban — to our several national destructions which resulted from not keeping God’s Torah. Yet, the churban itself is not imported into the Hallel; the verses are stripped of their context. And the reason, I understood, is that we do not want to draw attention to the fact that we did not ultimately keep God’s laws at the very time that we are thanking Him for delivering us from Egypt precisely for that very purpose.
At the same time, the destruction is imported, sub rosa, and is made present by its obvious absence. In the middle of saying Hallel, we make reference, implicitly, to the pain and suffering of our destructions and exiles. It is, of course, an implicit lesson and a warning. But it is fundamentally, more than that: it is to say that in the Hallel we are thankful to God for our deliverance as well as for our suffering, because we recognize that both are agents of our progress to ultimate perfection. That is the door that we open, literally and metaphorically — the door of possibility, for the good or ill which lie hidden in the recesses of the night, which we invite in to our lives, to our history, with praise, and with gratitude, a gift devised by God uniquely for us, and for us only, to bring us to our destiny as a nation, as a family, and as individuals. When we open that door, we are thus truly free, to approach God.
Like the doors in our collective history, each of us has these innermost doors in his or her own life which open to ultimate challenges.
My cancer is such a door.
And this door, I thought, was our answer to the door in The Song of Songs. There, in Rav Soloveitchik’s famous metaphor, God was knocking on our door, and the Jewish people tarried to answer, so that by the time we opened it, God was gone. In the seder, on the other hand, we open the door without anyone having knocked. It is our answer to The Song of Songs — that we do not have to be summoned, we will present ourselves by our own volition, in advance. We open the door to the terror of the night — we do not know what is on the other side, what is obscured in its blackness. What will appear? How will God make himself known? Will he appear as Elijah? Will he appear as cancer? We are prepared for either one — we will embrace them both as manifestations of God in our lives, and as necessary steps on the journey to ultimate purification and redemption.
On line waiting for my treatment, learning from a sefer, I noticed that when I left to go to the bathroom — I need my bladder to be empty for the radiation — a chasid sitting next to me leaned over to examine its title. Maybe this was the purpose of my cancer, so that I could appear at this time and this place so that this chasid can see a modern Orthodox man learning Torah, and sense thereby the underlying unity of committed Jews, even the ones who were clearly not of his group. Maybe he needed that, and I was the vessel for his lesson. Maybe I needed that, to feel that I could, in such mundane ways, be the agent of a small epiphany for one man, of many of which the ultimate redemption of the Jewish people is composed.
Or maybe it was another chasid, a wiry, wizened man, his beard streaked with gray and white, who brings his wife every day, to whom I gave my coveted spot and who now smiles at me appreciatively, and knows me by name. Everything to him is from God —“min hashamayim.” He understands. God shares our distress. We console Him — we accept His decree with gratitude and love. It is alright. We are alright.
Or maybe it was for the nurse, whom I occasioned to say “ashrecha” –a blessing whispered in a long, neon-lit corridor dug out of a hill on the outskirts of Jerusalem, with its multitude of anonymous patients, each playing out his or her own drama, each immersed in their own passion, each enveloped in the Divine presence — the Shechina.
Or maybe it was all for me, simply to allow me to experience yet another of the myriad beautiful dimensions of this extraordinary place, to be cared for by the extended family that is the Jewish state, to hear its “refuah shlemas” and “besorot tovot” from its most caring angels. As they minister to me when I am in the machine, they draw lines on my body with magic markers to guide the beams, and as I hear the monotone buzzing begin and imagine I feel the invisible rays entering me, I commend my self into the hands of God. As I leave the hospital passing, one by one, my fellow patients, I thank God repeatedly for all this. Maybe, then, God wants to hear the outpouring of my heart, and maybe not even for Him, but for me.
And maybe it is just for me to observe and to write all this, not to dare to presume to speak for all who suffer, but simply to speak for myself, about my own experience, in the hope that a reader might relate and draw from it some small measure of comfort and understanding.
Because this sufferer does not seek the end of his suffering, so much as he seeks its meaning.
But maybe it was not for any of these preordained things, or maybe not just for them, but for all of the small epiphanies to come, and maybe the idea is simply to accumulate as many of these tiny redemptions as we collectively can, each from the other and each in his own way behind his own invisible scrim, each enmeshed in the fabric of his own personal destiny, each with his gaze already settled on the farther horizon, all for some greater purpose yet obscured to our minds.
For all these purposes, and for whatever purpose, I eagerly join these people every day — it is like my daily minyan — we are God’s congregation, called to a special purpose which I embrace, like a child running to a parent, with eagerness and trepidation, with gratitude, with love, but most of all with reverence.
My cancer has a holy purpose.
My cancer is a door.