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 doesnt teach that difficult things wont 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 Untaneh 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 tshuvah [repentance/return], tfilah [prayer/reflection], and tzedakah [justice] avert the severity of the decree or in other words, have the potential to make lifes 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 dont know when and to whom. The authors dont 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.