“On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed:
How many shall pass on, how many shall come to be.
Who shall live and who shall die.”
Every year at this time, at Rosh Hashanah and again at Yom Kippur, we read these words from the prayer we call by its first words, “Unetaneh Tokef,” let us proclaim the sacred nature of this day; it is awesome and full of dread. And we imagine God sitting on the Divine throne, looking down upon us, taking measure of each of us, and deciding our fate during these Days of Awe. It was during this time, when life hangs in the balance, 20 years ago this week, that I first felt the lump in my breast.
I was a second-year rabbinical student, newly returned from a year in Israel and now preparing for classes in Cincinnati. And I had been given the great honor of acting as High Holy Day assistant for Rabbi Jamie Gibson at Temple Sinai in Pittsburgh. It was a last-minute request that had come into the college – so instead of preaching my very first sermons and reading my very first Torah with 25 people in Pueblo, Colorado, I found myself standing on the big bimah before some 12-hundred.
Rosh Hashanah had gone well: The congregation had been welcoming, and Rabbi Gibson was supportive and generous. So there I was in the shower, days before Yom Kippur, doing my monthly self-exam as I always did. That’s when I first felt the lump. And I was terrified.
With a history of breast cancer on both sides of the family, and with an Ashkenazic background that made me exponentially more likely to develop the disease, I went as soon as I could to my female OB-gyn, who sent me to a female surgeon, who said to me: Well, I don’t think it’s anything to worry about. Don’t make me open you up unless I have to. Instead, they put me on a regular schedule of appointments and ultrasounds, and left it to me to let them know if anything changed in between. This went on for two and a half years. All that time knowing I had something inside me that should not be there.
“This is the Day of Judgment!
For even the hosts of heaven are judged,
as all who dwell on earth
stand arrayed before You.”
After two and a half years, Don and I had to change our medical insurance, and, sure enough, the new plan did not cover any of our current providers. All new doctors, all new hospitals, all new radiologists. My new female OB-gyn sent me to a new female surgeon who looked at the pictures taken by the new radiologist and said: Well, my job is to take things out that don’t belong there. I don’t think it’s anything to worry about, but it doesn’t belong there, so let’s take it out.
The surgery took place during another Jewish festival – Passover of 1998 – when we were supposed to be celebrating, reclining at our meals like free men and women. And again I was terrified.
I remember the surgeon’s calming voice and her soft blue eyes from behind the mask as I drifted off. I remember waking up to the odd sensation of drainage tubes and the discomfort of stitches where tissue used to be. And then I remember, at five o’clock that Friday afternoon, just days after the surgery, the phone ringing and the surgeon’s voice on the other end. “I didn’t want to have any information over the weekend that you didn’t have,” she said. And yes, it was cancer.
And I remember bursting into tears, falling into Don’s arms, and saying, “I’m going to die.” How could it be otherwise? With a history of breast cancer on both sides of the family, with an Ashkenazic background, and knowing it had been in my body at least two and a half years, how could it be otherwise?
For the next few months, I ran the gauntlet. Another surgery to determine if the cancer had spread to the lymph nodes. And even though it had not, I opted for the most aggressive forms of treatment. A summer of the harshest chemotherapy, which would leave me bald and sick. Two months of daily radiation treatments, which left me, literally, a marked woman – and constantly tired.
But at High Holy Days that same year, three years since I had first felt the lump, I could take a deep breath and say that I was cancer-free. And I was no longer terrified.
“As the shepherd seeks out the flock,
And makes the sheep pass under the staff,
So do You muster and number and consider every soul,
Setting the bounds of every creature’s life, and decreeing its destiny.”
And now, 20 years later, we are reciting these same words from these same prayers. I still get that weird feeling in my stomach when I read them, but they no longer terrify me. They inspire me. They fill me with awe. They remind me of the fragility of life, and the short span we are given on earth, even in the best of circumstances.
But repentance, prayer and charity temper judgment’s severe decree.
The truth is that engaging in tshuvah, t’fillah and tzedakah does not mean that any one of us will be spared pain and loss in some way, shape, or form. What it does mean, I think, is that God opens up for us the possibilities of coping with what life hands us as best we can, and helping others do the same.
As my colleague, Rabbi David Teutsch, taught, this prayer shatters our everyday illusion of control: “I cannot control the unexpected blows that will affect my family, my job, my health,” he wrote. “But I can control how I live with them.”
Our prayer gives us the order of t’shuvah, t’fillah, tzedakah. But I’m going to change that a bit to explain how I live with them.
I think first of t’fillah, the Hebrew word for prayer. That’s the way we often encounter each other as Jews – in prayer settings like this – and we think of it as the way each of us encounters God. But t’fillah is more than that. Rabbi Teutsch calls it “cultivating gratitude and connecting with transcendent values.” Today, I’d call it “hope.”
When I got my diagnosis and cried, “I’m going to die,” I think I really was praying: “Please, God, don’t let me die.” I was way too young. I had too much still to learn as a student. Too much I wanted to do as a rabbi. And definitely too many more years to love my husband.
But I also knew that my whole community was praying for me. Make that communities, plural. My seminary community. My rabbinic community. My student congregation. My home congregation. My parents’ congregation. All remembering me for healing – which is, after all, a prayer of hope for the future. For a future.
And I never – ever – dismiss the power of prayer. I can’t even describe to you the feeling of entering Shabbat each week, knowing that there were so many voices, in so many places, speaking my name to God. I could almost hear them in my head, and embraced the sacredness of that time and that gift.
But like Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel walking with Dr. Martin Luther King in Selma, I realized then that t’fillah could expand beyond the boundaries of a sanctuary. Rabbi Heschel described marching for civil rights as ‘praying with my feet.’ And that’s just what it felt like the first time Don and I participated in a walk to raise money for breast-cancer research and treatment.
I was still bald from chemo and tired from radiation, with a knitted cap on my head and a knot in my stomach. We pulled into a parking space in downtown Cincinnati, and as we got out of the car, there were dozens and dozens of people doing the same around us. Men and women, and even little kids, getting out of their cars wearing pink t-shirts and sneakers with pink laces. I burst into tears once again and said, “Oh, they’re all walking for me.” And so they were. Or people like me. Sisters, wives, mothers, daughters – some of whom had survived, some of whom had not.
And the survivors: Young students and old grandmothers; some healthy and some pale and thin; some still in treatment and others cancer free for a quarter-century. All of us hugging and holding hands, and helping those who slowed or stumbled. They were all so beautiful and so brave. The transcendent values of hope and love and community all came together for me on that day when we found ourselves praying with our feet, praying for a day when nobody would have to go through what we had been through.
That day – that first walk – empowered me to think of myself, not as a victim, but as a survivor. Not as someone burdened by the past, but as someone with hope for a future.
That sense of turning is t’shuvah, the second step on this path to healing. Rabbi Teutsch calls t’shuvah “cultivating a spiritual life and returning to Torah.” I’d call it simply “health.” It is an approach to life, taking it day by day.
You know, there’s this famous story in the Talmud where Rabbi Eliezer tells his students: “You must repent before you die.” And the students say, “But Rabbi, how can we know what day we will die?” The punch line from Rabbi Eliezer is: “Exactly. All the more reason you should repent today – and every day. If you die tomorrow, then you know all your life will be spent in repentance.”
The Talmud presumes, I think, that we understand t’shuvah in this context as living constantly in a state of awareness of sin, of keeping far from transgression, of acknowledging misdeeds when they occur and immediately making amends. But what if t’shuvah here means something more? What if it means living constantly in a state of awareness of life itself? What if it means cherishing each morning we awaken, each relationship we cultivate, each success we achieve, even each breath we take. . . so that if we die tomorrow, we will know all our life will have been spent in really living.
What if this t’shuvah is the reason the rabbis twelve hundred years ago decreed that each of us ought to recite a hundred blessings a day – so that we would actually look, a hundred times a day, for even the smallest gifts that God gives us? And what if that’s also what it means to return to Torah? This sense of t’shuvah pervades our Days of Awe from now through Yom Kippur. And on our Day of Atonement we give t’shuvah its due when we read the words from Deuteronomy , in which God calls on Israel to choose life and not death, blessing and not curse. It’s a choice each of us is given.
The Torah presumes, I think, that we understand this as turning from sin and choosing the path of mitzvot. But what if it’s simpler than that?
What if, in choosing life and blessing, it means really choosing to embrace life itself as a blessing, appreciating each day as a gift from God? What if that’s really our ultimate choice: whether we will get up in the morning, determined to make the most of the day regardless of obstacles and setbacks, or whether we’ll succumb to the struggle?
If so, then the selection we will read on our holiest day of the year contains the holiest and most fundamental message of Torah: simply, “וּבָחַרְתָּ בַּחַיִּים ” – choose life. But those verses also remind us not to choose life for ourselves alone. God tells us: “וּבָחַרְתָּ בַּחַיִּים לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה אַתָּה וְזַרְעֶךָ, “choose life that you may live – you and your offspring.” What we choose to do with life affects all those around us.
And that’s where tzedakah comes in.
We usually use the word tzedakah to describe righteous giving: contributing money to people and causes that need our help. But it’s more than that. It’s not just giving out of our purses. It’s giving out of our souls. It’s an act of paying it forward however we can. Rabbi Teutsch calls it “cultivating generosity and pursuing justice.” I call it simply “help.”
During my own illness, members of my seminary community baby-sat me. They brought meals. They took me to the hat shop where the black Baptist ladies and the Orthodox Jewish women all bought their head coverings.
A bunch of guys in the group took care of Don, too, with – you know, guy stuff. (actually, he went hat shopping, too). All that was tzedakah.
Some people give tzedakah and don’t even know it, because that’s just who they are. At the student pulpit I started that fall, nobody registered any shock or horror on Yom Kippur afternoon, when I forgot to put my hat back on my bald head. Oh that, they said. We just figured you were comfortable enough with us that you didn’t need to put it back on. They will never know how utterly normal that made me feel when that’s what I needed the most.
Every community we’ve been a part of in the past 20 years has been filled with people who have undergone sickness and loss and trials of every imaginable kind, some emotional and some physical and some a devastating combination of the two. And the miracle of these communities is that they also are filled with people who – despite these obstacles – live lives of tzedakah. They not only go about their own business but are often the first ones to step up and help somebody else.
• The congregant who has lost both parents volunteering to lead a caring community team to assist others who are struggling with loss.
• The woman whose child has severe learning disabilities serving on the religious school committee to make the school inclusive and welcoming for all students who struggle.
• The families with little money to spare but with time and talent to share – the ones who always bake for congregational dinners and who always show up on temple clean-up days.
• The elderly who are mostly homebound but will take time each week to check on others who are in the same boat.
• The congregational matriarch whose child died young, dedicating time and energy and resources to helping families like hers deal with loss and bring them to healing and wholeness.
• The great-grandmother dying of cancer who set the example for her family and community with a big shebang of a birthday party just weeks before she died, celebrating her life and her loved ones, and showing appreciation for what she had, rather than dwelling on what was to come.
This, too, is tzedakah – all of it. Righteous giving by righteous people who ask for nothing in return because this is who they are and this is what they do.
The Talmud teaches: “The Holy One of Blessing says: If a man occupies himself with the study of the Torah and with works of charity and prays with the congregation, I account it to him as if he had redeemed Me and My children from among the nations of the world. ”
And that is, fundamentally, the gift of t’fillah, t’shuvah, and tzedakah – of hoping, healing, and helping. It is a process that infuses each and every day with appreciation, with meaning, and with purpose. It is an outlook on life that celebrates not just surviving but thriving in a world full of challenges and setbacks, big and small, physical and emotional.
Rabbi Marc Saperstein wrote of this same prayer, this Unetaneh Tokef which speaks of life and death hanging in the balance:
“We contemplate a new year, and this we know:
Some of us will live and some of us will die.
Even so – the way we act
The way we speak,
The way we meet God’s image in ourselves and in others –
These things have great power to make our lives matter.
Let us make whole the broken shards,
Green and thick the withering grass.
Let the wind fill us with urgency for life.
Let dreams give birth to justice and goodness.
God of holiness, God of hope,
Let us glimpse your truth, as we attach our hope to Yours.”