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August 29, 2015 | 14th Elul 5775

Life, Faith, and Cancer: Jewish Journeys Through Diagnosis, Treatment, and Recovery

Edited by Douglas J. Kohn


There is no question that upon learning that you have cancer or any other illness, or when confronted by any number of crises in life, the natural tendency is to ask, “Why?” – as if God, or the universe, or even the Power that makes for salvation could ever answer such a question. My natural tendency was to go to the texts and liturgy of our tradition for comfort and guidance, because I often found that they transform the question “why” into “what” and “how” in to “when.”

Jewish tradition doesn’t teach that difficult things won’t happen to a person if one is righteous and just, good and compassionate. Jewish tradition teaches that sometimes, even when we are the best person we can be, life will still deal us some inevitably difficult experiences. For example, one of the most powerful prayers during the High Holy Day services is the Un’taneh Tokef. In a haunting text and stirring melody, the authors of the prayer speak of the uncertainty of life and of our lack of control. “Who will live and who will die? Who by fire and who by water? Who by hunger and who by thirst…”, so the litany of terrible things continues. The prayer ends with the phrase “but t’shuvah [repentance/return], t’filah [prayer/reflection], and tzedakah [justice] avert the severity of the decree” – or in other words, have the potential to make life’s difficulties easier to bear. This prayer does not tell us why these terrible things will happen; on the contrary, the prayer tells us simply that they will happen, and we just don’t know when and to whom. The authors don’t leave us empty-handed, however. We can learn that living lives directed to meaning, making, reflecting on our contributions and needs, and connected to the world around us can put our own difficulties in the human story as a whole.

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