We will survive and we will thrive
This talk was delivered at the Hadassah Celebrate the Tatas Event.
It is so good to be together. We all need community. We all need Jewish community – now more than ever. Thank you for being here. Thank you for inviting me.
When I’ve mentioned to others that I’d be speaking at this event, people have asked me: “Are you getting your TaTas painted ?”
“No,” I’ve said, “I’m not sure it’s wise for a rabbi to have her breasts painted, photographed and printed on a poster.”
But I also know that modesty and breast cancer are incompatible. When you get that diagnosis – your TaTas are shown practically every time a medical practitioner walks in the door.
Now we have many tests in life even from the youngest of ages: spelling tests, math quizzes, exams, driving tests, SATs, perhaps GREs, MCATs, LSATs. Another test that I pray does not come your way is hearing the words, “You have cancer.”
Hearing those words is a test… a test in faith, a test in strength, a test in tenacity.
A second test we are all facing are the words, “Israel has been brutally attacked by terrorists and Israel is at war.”
We are all facing that latter test in the aftermath of the Simchat Torah Massacre and consequent war. Our minds, hearts and prayers are with our siblings in Israel.
Both the realities of cancer and the reality of a war in Israel can keep one up at night with anxiety. While I wouldn’t normally weave a sermon on breast cancer and war together, these are not normal times.
I could not imagine speaking at a Hadassah event, a Zionist organization whose mission is “to heal the world – in the US, Israel and the world” without addressing both topics.
Let me start with cancer.
For me, the life test of confronting the diagnosis of a dangerous disease would coincide with the earliest months of the pandemic.
It was March 2020, when I got a reminder for my annual mammogram. With the pandemic lockdown, I put that annual test on hold. Thank God for the second reminder that came in May that moved me to schedule my exam.
In mid-June, as I sat down to what I thought would be a normal day attending an online racial justice conference a first call came in.
“Can I return to the imaging center for a second scan?”
The lockdown led to immediate appointments. An hour later, I’d be at the office for another scan.
“Can I return that afternoon for a biopsy?” I was asked and I did.
Within days, the cancer was confirmed. There would be an MRI and there would be concern about cancer on the second side. There would be genetic testing. There would be further lab work to determine the precise makeup of the mass which at first came back as ambiguous.
It was a couple weeks till the treatment map was clear and it was not till the surgery was completed that I would know for certain that my scenario was as close to the best case as a cancer diagnosis can be, thank God.
My diagnosis and treatment would come in the early days of the pandemic. No friends or family could be part of my medical journey.
For 29 years I had lived on the other side of the hospital – as a pastoral presence. I had visited, I had counseled, I had seen people live with breast cancer and all forms of cancer, and I had seen people die from it. Now I was on the other side of the hospital bed – not as a pastoral presence but as a patient.
In reflecting on the experience today, I tell most people that I had a minor encounter with breast cancer. For so many of you have fought longer, and harder, and with more courage and fortitude and strength than I.
But at the time, if I am honest, my confronting breast cancer was scary and it was painful.
I don’t remember the secular date, but on the morning before Kol Nidre 2020, in the aloneness of COVID, I had a celebration alone.
I went to LCI, the Levine Cancer Institute, for my last radiation treatment. I gave Starbucks gift cards and notes to the kind radiation therapists and oncologists to thank them for being those hands and hearts of kindness helping me through the difficult journey. Then I asked if I could ring this bell that was in the hall – the bell I’d heard about from so many congregants with whom I’d prayed over the years and the bell that I had passed by each and every day of my treatment. It was my goal to ring that bell.
The staff was a little surprised. Prior to COVID, the ringing of the bell was a celebration to which family and friends would be invited. I learned at the moment we can celebrate life, even alone.
Yom Kippur is my cancerversary. My day of ringing the bell and marking that I’ve made it another year is perfectly aligned with the blasting of the shofar at the end of the day representing our people’s survival. For thousands of years we have stood together as a people to celebrate holy time and pray that we, as an am yisrael, an entire people of Israel, will be written in the Book of Life – for a good life and for peace.
This luncheon is a survival celebration. It is a celebration of all the women (and men) in this room who’ve survived breast cancer. It is a celebration of all the women who are using art as a most phenomenal form of resistance, resilience, and healing. And it is a celebration of all the women who are supporting the road to healing by raising money through this event to support cancer research at Hadassah hospitals in Israel.
When I was going through the forest of cancer, it was hard to see clearly. But afterwards I asked myself, “When exactly does one become a survivor?”
And I asked an expert, Dr. Raghavan, a Temple Beth El Board member and the primary builder of the Levine Cancer Institute to whom my gratitude is beyond words. Prior to his building LCI, our congregants would travel to far off cities for excellent cancer care and be separated from their families for long stretches of time – sometimes even dying far away from home.
Dr. Raghavan told me that survivorship should start at the time of diagnosis.
Being a survivor and making the new mosaic of our lives starts with the moment of shattering.
We all face moments when our lives are shattered. According to Dr. Raghavan, the healing process starts at the moment of devastation.
Dr. Raghavan’s prescription: even when the prognosis is alarming and or the outcome is overwhelming, we need to remember that we do not control everything in life. We thus need to maximize life one day at a time – celebrating wins and all good days.
Dr. Raghavan added when it comes to facing cancer: “I believe that the mind plays a big role in helping treatment and the setting of nonmedical goals seems to help. Mothers of young children are amazing at their ability to stay alive until they think the kids will be ok.”
Here’s the thing, as Jews, we have mastered survival.
In the fourth century CE, there was an influential Christian thinker St. Augustine of Hippo. Augustine struggled with what to do with the Jews who refused accept the divinity of Jesus but in his mind were needed to preserve and authenticate the Hebrew Bible — what he called the “Old Testament.”
Augustine then authored a stance that would be a pervasive lens through which the majority of our rulers in our history have dealt with us. In his book City of God, Augustine urged that Jews should be able to survive but not thrive.
Separation and degradation was the goal set for us by our adversaries but we never accepted that. For the near sixteen centuries since that statement, our goal as a people was the opposite — not just to survive but to thrive. Throughout our millennia as Jews, we have sung in our shuls, danced at our weddings, and celebrated our sacred time – no matter how great the antisemitic storms outside our doors.
And today we are tragically facing those antisemitic storms again. On Saturday, October 7th, our people experienced the worst pogrom since the Holocaust. 1400 Israelis were brutally killed, 4500 were wounded, and more than 200 were taken and are being held hostage. The terrorists were indiscriminate – stealing children from parents, parents from children, grandparents and teens from this world and from their families.
We are being tested every time we turn on the news. We are being tested every time we look at social media. We are being tested with every interfaith conversation.
How can we help people understand Israel’s intense and immense vulnerability? How can we bear the profound pain and loss of innocent life on both sides of the border? How can we sleep knowing our siblings are being held hostage by Hamas?
One of the rabbis whom I most respect is Rabbi Sally Priesand – who in 1972 was the first American woman to be ordained as a rabbi.
Rabbi Priesand wrote, “Maimonides’s prayer and oath of healing states, ‘Thou sendest disease to man as a beneficent messenger, announcing approaching danger and urging him to avoid it.’ In order to save the body, it is sometimes necessary to amputate a limb or extract a tumor. Hamas is a cancer that must be destroyed if Israel (and the Palestinians in Gaza) are to survive. Unfortunately, a ceasefire is not the solution. I say this as a person who has survived cancer three times and as a rabbi who has devoted her entire career to the pursuit of peace. It pains me to come to this conclusion,” Rabbi Priesand said, “but I see no other solution than to stand proudly with Israel, and I believe that in the end both Israel and the Palestinians will benefit from the destruction of Hamas.”
How nice it is to speak to a Zionist organization today. I don’t need to explain to all of you that as Jews we did not return to the holy land as colonizers. I don’t need to let you know that we have had an historical presence and sovereignty in the land that extends back three millennia in time and those who returned came as refugees. I don’t need to tell you that Zionism was our liberation movement and that Israel’s Declaration of Independence is fully committed to freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets.
Survival starts with the shattering.
It is interesting that we shatter a glass at our moment of greatest celebration, when we celebrate the marriage of two people starting a new world together. We do this to remember the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.
Perhaps we also shatter the glass when we get married to remember at that very moment that we have everything with us to get through the shatterings that will come – shelter, family, friends, a beloved, faith and God. The shattering of the glass tells us to remember – to remember Jerusalem’s shattering, to remember who we are and from where we come, and to remember that we survived. We not only survived but we thrived.
When I was young rabbi, on pastoral rounds in the hospital, I met a wonderful woman named Cynthia who was diagnosed with a serious breast cancer. She had the BRCA gene and most of the women in her family had died of an aggressive form of genetic breast or ovarian cancers before her. For several years I’d visit her and regularly call her as Shabbat was approaching. She was kind and classy and loved her faith. As a single rabbi, every Jewish mother at Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale wanted to fix me up. She did the same, setting me up on a blind date with someone who was far from the right match.
She had a hope for me that would only come to be after she died. At her funeral and shiva, I’d meet her son who’d come in from Charlotte. We’d fall in love and when we later told her friends, they said that was Cynthia’s hope and dream. Last week we celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary. Healing starts at the moment of shattering.
Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen tells the story of when her grandfather gave her a first kiddush cup when she was just a child. He taught her to say the toast, “L’chaim — to life.”
“Is it to a happy life, Grandpa?” she asked him.
“No, it is just to life! Neshuma-le, my sweet soul.”
“Is it like a prayer?”
“Ah no,” he told her. “We pray for things we don’t have. We already have life.”
“Is it written in the Bible, Grandpa?”
“No, Neshume-le,” he said, “It is written in people’s hearts. L’chaim! Means that no matter what difficulty life brings, no matter how hard or painful or unfair life is, life is holy and worthy of celebration.”
Today is a celebration of survival – the personal survival of friends and family who have faced cancer diagnoses and today is a celebration of our Jewish people’s survival – which is miraculous and will continue despite the enormity of pain we are feeling at this time.
I’ll let you in on a secret. I have a summer birthday when Chip and I annually invite our closest circle of friends to a dinner party. But in the summer of 2020, I didn’t want to celebrate my birthday because I was sad and I was scared. My best friends came anyway and brought me art supplies as a gift. I had forgotten how much I love to draw. And since that time, I have drawn cards for my family and cards for friends. Cards that they have saved – even on their refrigerators.
I had it all wrong. We can’t wait till our trials have ended to make the beautiful art that is our lives. And as overwhelming as this war is, we can’t wait for the war to end to celebrate births, birthdays, b’nei mitzvah, weddings, anniversaries, the beautiful painting of the TaTas and life itself.
Art heals. Food heals. Tzedakah heals. Doctors and nurses heal, though they can’t always cure. Prayers heal, though they are not always answered in the ways we first envision. But most of all, living life heals.
The ringing of the Levine Cancer Institute bell and the clinking of glass and saying “L’chayim – to life” are similar affirmations. We will not only survive but we will thrive.
In spite of our pain, in spite of our losses, in spite of Israel’s trauma and in spite of Israel’s losses which we grieve so deeply, we and Israel and global Jewry will take the broken fragments and make them into the masterpieces that are the essence of who we are.
Am Yisrael Chai – the people of Israel lives. We live our lives fully in the midst of fear. We live our lives fully in celebration of sacred moments. Israel lives and we live. L’chayim. To life.
 Augstine of Hippo, City of God (New York: The Double Day Religious Publishing Group, 1958), 427.