Five Seconds on My Bike. How Judaism Helped Me Cope with Cancer

By: Dr. Joel Roffman

Seven months ago, I stood before you at the end of Shabbat services and told you that I had cancer and that an MRI showed that it had spread to my bone marrow. A bone biopsy that Monday would define the exact type of cancer I had. The only group setting in which I made such an announcement was right here. You have been there for me all along, giving me moral support every week. You provided plenty of “virtual” hugs on the days when direct contact was not allowed for me, and I came to shul wearing a mask. I am, of course, grateful for the medical care I’ve received, and I am also grateful for my Jewish heritage and faith, which are responsible for some of the underpinnings of my emotional strength. The combination of good medicine, Nancy, and my shul have enabled me to heal.

So these underpinnings that I speak of – how exactly did Judaism help? What are the lessons and the points of emphasis of Judaism that helped me maintain emotional strength and helped sustain me? There are five key features of Judaism that are pertinent here, the last of which will explain my somewhat cryptic title.

1. Judaism teaches us to appreciate the seemingly mundane.

Upon awakening in the morning, I immediately say a prayer. It begins with the words, “modeh ani,” I give thanks. It is a very short prayer, in which we express gratitude for simply awakening and being able to live. As soon as I say this prayer, my mind moves along to what is in store that day. Instead of surveying how I feel and cataloging my bodily grievances, I think instead of what is to be done with my day. Patients to see. Friends to reach out to. Spending time with Nancy. Judaism’s emphasis on giving thanks for life – after all, we are taught in the Talmud to say 100 blessings a day – takes the emphasis off the negative. How extraordinary it is that Judaism encourages us to acquire a worldview in which nothing is taken for granted. We say prayers over food and for waking up in the morning. We even have a prayer upon seeing a rainbow. Not that adversity doesn’t exist and needs to be dealt with. And let’s face it – some days are just horrid. But for me, just being able to awaken next to Nancy – what could be sweeter than that? Just as pouring a few drops of milk into a glass of water colors the whole glass, a few drops of life’s blessings can change the whole complexion of a day that might otherwise be filled with physical discomfort and emotional gloom. Judaism teaches us to “count our blessings.”

2. Judaism teaches faith and optimism.

This is certainly not original analysis by me – many of you have heard this before. When the Israelites crossed the sea after escaping their Egyptian tormentors, Miriam and the other women took out their tambourines and broke into song and dance. So there they were in Egypt. In such a hurry to leave, they couldn’t even allow time for their bread to rise, so we celebrate with matzoh. Only the Jews would celebrate such a momentous event by eating such vile food as the “Bread of Affliction!” Anyway, on even the worst of my days over the past few months, I would tell Nancy at dinner that tomorrow would be better. That we would have the opportunity to play the tambourine again. Judaism teaches that tomorrow’s events are not necessarily certain, and that we have a role in shaping those events.

3. Judaism emphasizes the importance of ritual

The simple ritual of attending Shabbat services on Saturday morning, seeing friendly faces, and engaging in the timelessness of our prayers provided me with an anchor. That anchor’s connection was both horizontal: to my friends and to other Jews who were doing the same thing at the same time, and vertical: the connection to what my ancestors did before me. It gave me peace and strength to feel the connection with Jews everywhere and at all times, knowing that even in illness, what I was going through was nothing different from countless others, and just as they do and did, I responded with my Shabbat morning ritual.

The connection to my dear friends in the kehillah – you – gave me such strength! I typically planned D’vrei Torah the day after my chemotherapy treatment. And the very first time I led the P’seukei Z’mirot and Shakharit portions of the Shabbat service was also the day after a treatment. The mission to make Shabbat a special day, I’m convinced, gave me strength. And learning and preparing to lead those portions of the service after I was diagnosed with cancer added to my sense of mission.

In Judaism, we know how special Shabbat is, and even if we have differing levels of observance, the day can still be special. My growth in davening and leading our shul in prayer was a response to the holiness of the day, and achieving personal growth even in the face of adversity is a traditionally very Jewish response. In my case, there was an additional benefit: practicing those portions of the service in the early morning hours before seeing patients helped take my mind off the symptoms that resulted from my treatment.

4. Judaism doesn’t try to explain the inexplicable.

In Pirkei Avot, we read, “It is not in our power to explain the suffering of the righteous or the tranquility of the wicked.” I certainly do not mean to paint myself as a righteous person, but there is a larger point here. The Book of Job and the Talmud teach that adversity and illness find us even without our being culpable. I realize that many Jews would disagree with my particular theology, but I don’t believe that my lymphoma was the direct result of God punishing me or, for that matter, Nancy, or my daughter Leah. I also don’t believe it was the direct result of God teaching us a particular lesson. My feeling is that God created the universe and the rules of nature, and disease is simply a manifestation of that. While there may well be an overarching endpoint to God’s universe that I can’t see and don’t grasp, that would have seem to have little to do with each and every individual occurrence on earth.

The Torah, the Talmud and the writings all have the same message – it is not in our ability to explain illness and adversity. Although I do not view my illness as being divine punishment, I can still accept the challenge of our faith to continue to try to make the world better, act by single act. I can even, if properly motivated, use the illness as an opportunity to be an example of how to handle adversity with equanimity, courage and the determination to continue to do what I am called upon to do – as a member of my family, as a physician, as a friend, and as a Jew.

5. Judaism is a culture of life.

Judaism doesn’t much concern itself with Angels, and we don’t emphasize heaven, hell and damnation. We can’t know what comes later, and we can’t know what follows our lives on earth. We can, however, affect the world, in even if in a small way. We can help shape what comes next, and that is what Judaism constantly reminds us.

Rather than a leap of faith, Abraham Joshua Heschel teaches that the Jew is asked to take a leap of action. We are taught to not accept suffering as God’s will or God’s punishment. We are taught to alleviate it. Every moment of life is sacred, and no act of kindness is wasted. Each moment of our lives provides an opportunity to do good – for us and for others. By changing ourselves we can change the world. In fact, our writings teach us that our mission is nothing short of tikkun olam – to heal the world.

There is no glory in illness. We are told to heal the sick and to relieve suffering.

There is no glory in poverty. We are told to feed the hungry and to clothe the naked.

There is no glory in death. We are told to choose life. To preserve it. To make the best of it that we can, no matter the circumstance. And to appreciate it, extracting from it all the enjoyment we possibly can.

Last month, I actually had an experience on my bike that could be a metaphor for life and death, and for Judaism’s message. I was riding early one Sunday morning. I came upon a red light and, of course, stopped. Next to me at the red light rolled up a man on a motorcycle. In the metaphor, my bike and I represent life; the man and the motorcycle represent death. There we were, side by side at the intersection.

I looked over at death and nodded. Death smiled at me and gave me a thumbs up sign, looking approvingly at my form of exercise and transportation. Life returned the thumbs-up sign and playfully called across the lane to death, “Wanna race?” Death smiled at me, as if to say, “Silly boy. You know I’m going to win this race. I always do.” I, however, was determined. I looked back at the road, bracing myself for the race. My foot was in the toe clip, and I was ready to go. The cross light turned yellow. I gave a final glance both ways to be sure there were no cars trying to beat the light. The coast was clear.

The light turned green. Life was off to the race! I stood up from the saddle to gain more power. With several quick turns of the pedal I felt a surge of excitement and exhilaration. I glanced back over my left shoulder at death. The biker was just now entering the intersection. Life yelled out, in a really loud voice, “I’m winning!!!” Just then, I heard a loud VROOOM!!! And then, WHOOOSH – death passed me as though I was standing still. Death won the race after all.

By my estimation, I was leading the race for around five seconds. But those were five glorious seconds. Those five seconds in which life was winning the race were a tiny fraction of my whole ride that morning, much as our lives are a tiny fraction of the great sweep of time. But even with my hours of riding that morning, they were the five seconds that I remember the most. They seemed elongated in time, and I derived every bit of enjoyment I could while I was still ahead in the race. In reality though, the time was gone in a flash. . .

The Talmud teaches that when we die, we will face a heavenly court, in which there will be a number of questions for us to answer. They are, in my interpretation, whether we were honest in our business dealings, whether we set aside time for Torah, whether we tried to heal the world and whether we helped sustain the Jewish people. Elsewhere in the Talmud, we read of another question–whether we made time to partake of all the pleasures that were available to us in life. That is, did we appreciate the blessings in our lives and enjoy those which were accessible to us.

So my dear friends, pedal as hard as you can. The motorcyclist is revving his engine.

Shabbat Shalom

This D’var Torah is an excerpt from “Making Every Day Count. A Jewish Doctor Confronts his Illness,” by Joel Roffman, M.D., and was reprinted by permission. Mazo Publishers, 2015.