by Rabbi Andrew R. Sklarz, MSW
It was hours before I would step on the bimah and conduct the Erev Rosh HaShanah service.
As the nation reeled from the cataclysmic events of 9/11, I lay upon the examination table of the cancer ward. Was it just weeks earlier that life was normal? Young, carefree, and naively certain of my invincibility, I had scheduled my annual physical.
So smug was I upon entering my physician’s office, with no doubt that I would again be labeled “medically boring” and my doctor and I would wax philosophical about our lives, as usual. When my white-clad friend opened the door, however, his smile was not the one I had known. Suddenly, my bon vivant attitude came to a screeching halt. My physician was somber as he informed me of an abnormality in my blood work. Perhaps a lab error, I mused.
Within weeks, the mystery was revealed: leukemia. Immediately, the world as I knew it went berserk. How could this happen? Why?
Plagued with terror and despair while groping for answers, I wondered if this was Divine justice for some transgression. So often, I had sat by a bedside offering comfort to someone convinced he had received retribution from God for some act. How many times had I attempted to reassure others there was no correlation between deed and illness? Yet on some level, I believed that if I behaved honorably, Divine Providence would be mine. How could God betray me? Why was I being forsaken, abandoned, left alone in a world of medical uncertainly to die? The words “Who will live and who will die” reverberated in my head, preparing me for what I feared might be my final High Holy Days. Such thoughts were especially pronounced within the cancer ward just hours before I would lead the congregation in prayer for inscription in the Book of Life.
The prayer I had held fast was shattered: The marrow of my only brother could not be transplanted into my body. Because he was not a suitable match, I would need to put myself on a list and pray for an unrelated donor match. The walls seemed to be closing in, and despair plagued my soul. I sought a sign from God and prayed for meaning, reason, purpose to this horror. The ark in our sanctuary reads “Know before whom you stand” – and more than ever did I seek to know God and understand the Divine Will. Desperately I sought answers, wondering if this was a punishment and praying for a miracle.
Sixteen years earlier, my love of humanity and passion for the ethics of Judaism brought me to Hebrew Union College – despite my long struggle with the concept of God. In rabbinical school, I entered a chaplaincy internship at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Counseling came naturally to me, yet when patients brought up God or requested me to recite the prayer for healing, I felt a lack of authenticity. At such moments, this young rabbinical student thought himself a fraud. My heart was with my patients, as was my hope for their healing and health, but did I truly believe God was part of the equation?
At Sloan-Kettering, I developed strong ties with leukemia patients in the hospital for extended periods. I prayed with them for a match, celebrated when transplants were a success, and consoled families when they were not. In truth, I considered leukemia a death sentence, as I’d seen two contemporaries succumb to its ravages.
Two months before my diagnosis, the news reported an experimental drug with a dramatic impact upon those who had failed treatments for a specific form of leukemia. Despite my oncologist’s adamancy that this drug was “too experimental and in clinical trials with no long-term data,” I persisted on my own. After the holidays, I went to Sloan-Kettering, where my rabbinic cloak was replaced with the patient’s gown and I filled with emotions I had never experienced. Hours later, I left with a prescription for this new protocol. Would I travel this road or follow what my oncologist demanded as the only cure, and thus register for a marrow donor? I felt as if I was playing Russian Roulette; one false move and it would be over. My gut (I wasn’t yet ready to call it God) directed me to chart the journey of the unknown frontier.
Within weeks, a miracle seemed to occur: There was no trace of the disease.
Slowly, life began to take on some sense of “normal” – a new normal, for the “normal” I had once known no longer existed. Rather, it became my task, with the help of God, to take the reality before me and make this normal. As that new sense of “normal” prevailed, a new me emerged. On the surface, I was not terribly different, but nothing has ever been quite the same. A driving need to pursue my passions took hold, from cycling to yoga to playing music. Moreover, through the miracles that have been brought into my life, I feel an increased obligation to partner with God and my fellow human beings.
While my personal theology has developed through my journey, I could certainly not say that all which occurs in life part of the Divine Plan. Accidents, acts of cruelty, and senseless violence occur – yet, I have come to believe that for each of us, God does have a plan. Our journeys are uniquely our own; they are between ourselves and God. We are called to consider why God has presented us with our experiences and, in the process, hear the voice of God, understand how the Divine hand is at work, and consider how God wishes us to best fill our days.
Rabbi Andrew R. Sklarz, MSW, serves Greenwich Reform Synagogue is Greenwich, CT. He has authored chapters in Life, Faith and Cancer: Jewish Journeys Through Diagnosis and Broken Fragments, among others. Rabbi Sklarz, who has worked with cancer and AIDS patients and those in crisis, has appeared on television, been interviewed on radio, and was featured in the video documentary The Journey: A Survivor’s Story.