“I heard the rabbi is dying of brain cancer.”
That was the word flying around the shul. I should have expected it. Rumors were rife, and they were uncomfortably close to the truth.
Last Oct. 23, I was speaking at the University of Pennsylvania, to inaugurate the new Hillel building on campus. At dinner, I sat beside my parents.
As I spoke, I felt a little strange, nervous and hot. I had trouble keeping to my train of thought. It occurred to me that I was coming down with a cold.
As I sat down after my speech, my father asked, “Is there anything wrong?”
“No,” I said, and that is the last thing I remember.
Almost immediately, I had a violent seizure. The seizure would not stop until in the ambulance, I was administered large doses of drugs intravenously.
I was lucky. Not only were there several doctors present, but as one of them told me later, had I been swimming, driving or in the bath, I would likely not have survived.
I do not remember anything of the seizure. Mercifully, I was unconscious.
From the moment I woke up in the University of Pennsylvania hospital and for the next few days, I was confused. I asked the same questions over and over. I saw people and a day later forgot that I had seen them. Yet the CT scan showed nothing.
Upon returning from Philadelphia, my wife took me for an MRI. Now with the more precise images, the radiologist told us there was “an area of concern.”
For 12 hours, we ran that bland-sounding, terrifying phrase through our minds over and over. The following day, we were told I was to have surgery to remove a lesion in my brain.
Two weeks separated the seizure and the surgery. My wife has since told me that during that time, I was not entirely myself. I did not make jokes; I was automated.
I remember thinking that as I read, I was somehow separated from the me that was reading. I felt like a character in an Oliver Sacks book, a dulled spectator of my own life.
We sat in the surgeon’s small examining room at UCLA and learned that lesions or tumors in the brain are rarely treatable by surgery alone. While he believed the operation looked pretty straightforward, he also considered at least a short course of radiation nearly inevitable.
As Eliana and I spoke to him, he said I would be in a special operating theater, where they could do a continuous MRI to track exactly where to excise the lesion. He did not anticipate any problems.
Then with a professional sigh, he added, “Of course, in brain surgery anything can happen.”
My family flew in from the East Coast. I appeared briefly in the synagogue, arriving toward the end of the service and standing hand in hand with Eliana. My appearance had not been announced, and the congregation rose to its feet and applauded. I held my voice in check with difficulty as I told them what was happening and asked for their patience and their prayers.
Samuel Johnson famously remarked that “when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it clarifies his mind wonderfully.”
At crucial moments, our bedrock priorities shine bright. I realized with some surprise that I was not so afraid for myself. I did not want to die, but I had been very lucky in life and the outcome was not in my hands.
I was afraid for my wife and especially for my 7-year-old daughter. How would she cope with what could happen to me? What would my death or disability do to her life?
The morning of surgery, as my bed was wheeled out of the prep room, I said the “Shema” with the acute knowledge that it could be last time. I felt with powerful intensity the ephemerality of everything, how life, friends, family, love, this entire world is a wisp grasped between our fingers and how a moment can take it away.
We walk on a tightrope, and there are some who look down and tremble and others, like myself, who live looking straight ahead. I do not know which is wiser, although I have always known that only the former are fully awake. Suddenly forced to look down, the current below, the ones that swallow our lives, seemed swift and strong. As I fell to sleep, I knew it was only a step away from darkness.
My first memory after the operation is of the surgeon standing over me, telling me it went well, but that there was still an 85 percent chance I would need radiation — perhaps one treatment, perhaps several. Then the nurse offered me morphine. I told him no drugs until I saw my wife, because I did not want to be cloudy when I first saw her.
When Eliana walked in and I said hello, she told me later, she could tell instantly I was once again myself.
The nurse asked how bad the pain was — 1-10. I said about five or six. Did I want one morphine capsule or two? I had never had morphine, and this was my chance.
“Two,” I said.
My wife told him that I was slight and he should give me one.
“No, two,” I insisted.
“Give him one,” she said.
I turned to the nurse and said, “I made a mistake. I should have taken the morphine before I saw her.” All three of us laughed. That was when she knew for sure I was back.
A week later, they called with the final pathology. It was totally benign. I would need no further treatment.
I was joyous, but cautious. It is the same feeling that my wife, a cancer survivor of six years, always told me about when people insisted she was now “fine.”
I felt fine then, she told me, and I had cancer. I felt fine, too, and then I collapsed. There is no more fine. There is fine for the moment, fine for this MRI, but once one has been seriously ill, fine is a concept that always carries a footnote.
I was mindful of many whom I knew, congregants and friends, whose diagnosis was not so blessed. It was hard to tell them I had been lucky; my good fortune was as inexplicable as their suffering.
The weeks of recovery were a bit arduous, but I was blessed. The staff, laypeople and clergy in the synagogue handled everything. The community was wonderful.
To have others pray for you is a sensation that brings inexpressible relief and joy. I felt anew that we are bearers of God’s standard in this world.
The Talmud says, “achevruta o mituta,” friendship or death. That was a lesson I always thought drenched in exaggeration, but it is so. Community is life, and as one Chasidic master put it, “God speaks the language of human beings.”
I felt God reach to me through the hands of the doctors and the wonderful nurses in my unit at UCLA, and then powerfully from family and friends.
Under strict orders to rest, I asked people not to call. The phone was silent, word reached us of prayers sent through the Internet, offered in homes and in shuls.
My family ate meals that were brought by the congregation. People sent books, videotapes, beautiful cards. I felt wrapped in a remarkable covering of community chesed (lovingkindness).
In response, I am taking the beautiful suggestion of one congregant to fulfill the mitzvah of writing a Sefer Torah (Torah scroll). I have commissioned a sofer (a scribe), and the congregation will be joining my family in creating a new Sefer Torah for our synagogue.
“Brain surgery” sounds horrifying. As I recovered, many people wondered if I emerged intact. I was at the hospital and then at home, so very few people actually saw me. They devised ways of asking my wife without asking her:
“Is he getting around? Is he talking much?” A lot of people asked “Is he reading (watching TV, listening to music, etc)?”
One friend asked my wife anxiously: “Is he reading normally?”
“No,” she answered. And then when the shock settled, she added, “He is reading in the same constant, ridiculously compulsive way he always did.”
In the 1950s, when Whittaker Chambers wrote his autobiography, “Witness,” about breaking with the Communist Party, Andre Maulraux sent him a telegram: “You have not returned from hell with empty hands.”
For any powerful experience, the questions for one’s soul are what did it teach you; have you returned with empty hands?
For me, it is still too early to tell. I need time — time to see what, if anything, I have really learned.
But apart from a keener sense of the passing away of all things, I have a few observations. Judaism takes darkness seriously. Everything begins with the dark: “There was evening and there was morning” — light emerges from darkness.
Rebbe Aharon of Apt said that darkness was the chair on which light sits. That appreciation of darkness is a powerful theme in our tradition. We see it in the world.
The French poet Valery said that God created the world from nothing, but sometimes the nothing shows through. He might as aptly have said that God created the world from darkness, but often the darkness shows through.
Anyone who faces serious illness comes to believe in darkness. I believe not only in its existence — I always have — but its power. Darkness has a power to show things that light obscures.
Rabbi Hanina comments in the Talmud that the eye has a dark part and a light part, but one can only see through the dark part.
Through the darkness I came to see the contours of my life in a different way. The shadows became less frightening but also more central. When the psalmist declares that he walks through the valley of the shadow of death, that is the darkness we must walk through.
It is the sitra ahra, the second side, the shadow side, and without it there is no growth. We are afraid of the dark, and we shield ourselves from it, but it holds something essential for us. We are diminished without darkness.
As George Bernard Shaw wrote, the desert is a desert because the sun always shines there.
So I ask myself again and again, what grew in the shadows? It was not that I realized each moment of life is precious. I know that and cannot act that way.
I cannot cherish each moment of life and banish all annoyance, anger, pettiness and bitterness. At such moments, this experience helps me to keep perspective, but as I said half-jokingly to my congregation, when someone insists that each moment must be met with calm acceptance, puncture his tires. Will he call for the jack with a loving lilt in his voice?
We do not excise the range of human emotion because we have faced death. Still, for a moment, when the possibility whispered, it put an impress on my soul.
It taught me anew how powerful is human kindness. I realized, for those blessed enough to live through such an experience, that there are models: Almost every major character in the Bible builds his or her life on a second chance. Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Leah, Moses, Ruth, and so many more stand in the circle of second chances.
We may not know what it means, but when God grants a second chance, we are not permitted to ignore the mystery. Perhaps the mystery itself is the meaning.
Almost two months after the surgery, we all flew to Philadelphia for my niece’s bat mitzvah. There over the Torah I benched “Gomel,” the prayer that thanks God for sparing one’s life. Completely unexpectedly, tears welled up in eyes.
I thought of God’s words through the prophet Isaiah (38:5): “I have heard your prayers, I have seen your tears.” Is there anything more to ask?
At times, I think the only message is to appreciate anew my favorite line in all of Jewish prayer. It is the final line of the service, from “Adon Olam,” and all too often ignored amidst folding tallises and people rushing to kiddush: “In Your hand I entrust my soul, both asleep and awake. And if my spirit should pass away, God is with me. I will not be afraid.”
David Wolpe is senior rabbi at Sinai Temple in Westwood.