The year was 2015. I was 29, about to turn 30, and had big plans for the future. I was finishing up my master’s degree in Jewish Education and Communal service, essentially nonprofit management in the Jewish world, and I was getting my ducks in a row to move to Israel. I had spent the past five years going back and forth from Israel, and had fallen in love with the people and lifestyle there, and I wanted to make my life there. As I prepped for my exciting life ahead, I was dealing with some pesky symptoms that I wanted to get resolved before relocating across the world.
It took several months, but in the last semester of my M.A. program, it happened. We finally found what was causing all of my problems. A tumor on my pancreas. Okay, no problem, get it removed and on to Israel, right?! Well, it turns out the pesky little tumor was cancer. Incurable cancer. At the time, I thought I was destined for a certain death in the very near future. I had no context for my diagnosis. My understanding of cancer was very simplistic — the way many “muggles” view cancer. You get cancer, you fight and you either win or lose. So I now knew that I had cancer and it wasn’t ever going to go away, and ultimately, I was destined to lose.
I did the only thing I knew how to do at the time — I panicked. And once I recovered from the panic of the complete, world shattering diagnosis that is cancer, I turned to my books.
I already knew the Jewish response to illness in the community. At least once a week, during regular services, there is a prayer recited called “Misheberach.” This prayer is recited for those who are ill, anticipating surgery, or in need of healing. I recalled the main passage and main message. It asks God to grant a speedy recovery to whomever is ill.
a complete healing —
healing of the body —
Soon, speedily, without delay
My response was guttural. A speedy recovery? What the actual fuck. So, the recovery is assumed? What are we supposed to say to people who will not recover? I was incensed. My Judaism had gotten me through a lot. I never identified as a religious person, but I was always intensely interested in the traditions and customs of Judaism. To me, many stemmed from a logical place and were based on the idea of community and caring for the soul, and that sounds good for you, whether or not you believe in God. So again I asked, what is Judaism’s response when someone will not recover?
I decided to research a bit further. I had taken a medical ethics and Judaism course, and it seemed like the obvious place to dig deeper into the Jewish response to serious illness and terminal illness. Judaism has a response to everything, so there had to be a response to terminal illness as well. When I dug, I discovered that the wise Rabbis of old decided that you should not tell someone who is terminally ill that they are going to die. I was done. Enraged. It turned out, these wise Rabbis didn’t know jack shit. Don’t tell someone? What kind of response was that? Then they can’t seize the day, they can’t drink up every last minute, every last drop because they don’t know it will be their last. How could that be the correct response?
I decided that Judaism, as a religious enterprise, sucked. I was done with it. Screw those Rabbis. They aren’t wise at all. They don’t know what it is like. Who are they to think that they have the authority to make that decision for someone else? To deny them information about their own medical situation? F that. I’m out.
On top of that, my dreams of moving to Israel quickly evaporated. Following my diagnosis, I had spent the summer working in Israel. I got incredibly sick and ended up hospitalized. While I speak Hebrew pretty well, it turns out that medical jargon is another story. Not to mention, with my diagnosis, it would complicate my insurance options and leave me under-insured and destined for a lifetime of uncovered medical expenses. I felt totally betrayed by both traditional Judaism and my modern Jewish world. I packed it in and packed away that part of my being.
Throughout the years, people would hear about my diagnosis and I would get the old, “I’ll pray for you.” Cue the internal eye rolls. Religion. Ugh. But I learned to say thank you and move on.
Several years later, I moved to Denver. I decided to try again to understand the Jewish response to illness, because as much as I had left my Judaism, my Judaism had never left me. I spoke to local Rabbis and tried to understand why you wouldn’t tell someone that they were not going to get better. My understanding is that the answer comes down to the spirit. The Rabbis were concerned that if someone knew that they were going to pass, their spirit would give up. Back then, there weren’t “treatments.” Hope in the face of illness was different. The Rabbis knew that in order to keep plugging along, people need hope. My anger slowly changed to indifference.
Through speaking with my friends — no, family — in the cancer community, I have been able to take a step back, and instead of listening only to the words that people say, I try to think about the intention of what they are saying. When people say that they are praying for me, they are telling me that they are doing the only active thing that they know how to do for me. My indifference has now turned to graciousness. And through my acceptance of other people’s connection to religion, and acceptance of their love, I have opened myself back up to the Jewish world and have begun actively seeking Jewish connection again.
If you were to ask me today if I identify as a religious person, the answer would still be no. But the door that had been slammed shut is opening and letting in the light. The light of my community. I feel strengthened, a sense of resilience, and finally, a sense of hope — my soul has started to heal. With a renewed sense of excitement about the future, I gave birth to a beautiful baby girl this fall. I named her Eliana. Which means, “My God has answered me.”
* * *
I recently looked up the words to the “Misheberach” prayer. Given how focused my anger was on this one specific prayer, I was surprised to realize that I had never examined the full prayer itself.
May the One who blessed our ancestors —
bless and heal the one who is ill:
________________ son/daughter of ________________ .
May the Holy Blessed One overflow with compassion upon them,
to restore them,
to heal them,
to strengthen them,
to enliven them.
The One will send them, speedily,
a complete healing —
healing of the soul and healing of the body —
along with all the ill,
among the people of Israel and all humankind,
Soon, speedily, without delay,
and let us all say: Amen!
“To restore them, to strengthen them, to enliven them… A healing of the soul.” Maybe those Rabbis weren’t so off-base after all.