Facing Death, How Do You Live?
Mortality. The purpose of existence. How to live. These are all themes forced into our consciousness by the High Holy Days, with its liturgical focus onthe fleeting nature of existence, the imminence of death, the opportunity for renewal.
For people facing life-threatening illnesses, it doesn’t take a date on thecalendar to bring those ideas to the fore. The finiteness of life is a daily reality.
The Jewish Journal sat down with four beloved and respected rabbis to focus through the real-life lens of their personal battles with cancer on one of the central questions of the High Holy Days. How do you live, when death is so clearly in view?
Rabbi Ed Feinstein worked through his first Rosh Hashanah as a congregational rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino knowing he had cancer growing in his colon.
Diagnosed in 1993, at 39 years old, he had a wife and three young children and was starting a new job.
“It changes the way you read all the prayers, it changes the way you hear the shofar, it changes the way you say Shanah Tovah [Happy New Year]. The themes of the holiday are life and death, and it all becomes much more visceral than before,” he said.
He endured surgery and a year of chemotherapy, and the cancer was gone. But just four years later, at one of his regular checkups, the doctor discovered a new tumor, this time in his liver — a fatal diagnosis for 80 percent of patients.
Now, 10 years later and cancer-free, Feinstein, 55, says he has spent a lot of time thinking about cancer, about mortality, about life.
“When the machzor asks the question, ‘Who will live and who will die?’ it occurred to me that the answer is ‘me.’ I will. Who by fire and who by water, who in his time and who before his time? Me. To every one of those things in the prayer, the answer to the question is ‘me.’ That prayer is talking about what it means to be finite, mortal human beings who try to live in the world with joy and with hope, knowing that death is a very real part of human experience and existence,” said Feinstein, rabbi at VBS, a Conservative congregation with 1,700 families.
But the frailty of existence does not depress him.
“If you really want to know what the whole tradition is about, it’s about choosing life. When I was a seminary student, I thought that was a strange mitzvah. Who wouldn’t choose life? But what I discovered — what cancer taught me — is that this is the hardest mitzvah in the book to keep…. The whole tradition is teaching us to have the courage to choose life, even when it’s really scary, even when it’s really dark outside and inside, even when you don’t know if you’re going to make it to your daughter’s bat mitzvah. Choose to get up, come into the world. Work. Love. Laugh, dream, and don’t give up.”
Feinstein acknowledges that while he said and believed those things before he had cancer, he didn’t understand them fully until death was looming.
“There is a line dissecting humanity. On one side, where most people live, is a world where you worry about who is going to win on ‘American Idol’ and ‘Dancing With the Stars,’ and you get upset with traffic jams and slow service in restaurants.
“Then, on the other side of the line, are all of us who know that life is short and finite and terribly, terribly fragile, and we’ve decided not to let those things upset us anymore. We deal with a whole different set of realities about what is important in life,” he said.
When Rabbi Feinstein sits in a traffic jam, he tells himself he’ll be late, but also that he’s alive and healthy and has a wonderful wife and children. He also no longer sits on countless committees that take up his time, and he admits to having no patience for what he views as trivialities — such as complaints about how many aliyahs the bar mitzvah family can get.
“‘You’re here, you’re healthy, your kid is celebrating, your parents are here. You have nothing to complain about.’ People become so irritated with all the details of the simcha, that they forget what a simcha is and what the alternative is,” he said.
The enormity of his blessings constantly hit him — his kids made fun of him for how much he cried at their bar and bat mitzvahs. And he loves the way he is aging.
“When you’re on the other side of the line, growing old is something to be fought, it’s all about looking younger,” he said. “All I wanted, all I prayed for when I was sick, was for the opportunity to grow old.”
American culture, he said, likes to hide illness, tragedy and death, and call such instances a crisis, rather than acknowledge that at some point everyone will get hit. That willful blindness, he said, can only lead to despair when something does happen.
“The greatest sin is despair. It isn’t idolatry or blasphemy. It’s to give up on life and on hope and on tomorrow. The greatest sign of faith is the moral courage to live with hope, knowing that I don’t have an infinite number of tomorrows. I still want to embrace my kids, my friends, my world. I want to love. I want to live. I want to laugh. And I won’t let go.”
Cancer wasn’t the first trauma Rabbi Anne Brener faced. Her mother committed suicide when Brener was 24, and her only sister died in a car accident just a few months later.
Brener, now 61, has dedicated her life to healing, personally and professionally, working for decades as a pioneer in the Jewish healing movement and writing a book on the subject, “Mourning and Mitzvah — A Guided Journal for Walking the Mourner’s Path Through Grief to Healing” (Jewish Lights, 1993 & 2001).
But even with all that experience, she was still surprised by how clearly she understood what she had to do when she was diagnosed with uterine leiomyosarcoma nearly four years ago.
She had to yield.
“I’ve heard so many people say ‘I had cancer but I didn’t let it slow me down.’ Well, why not? My life has hit me with something that makes me question what it means to be human; it’s given me the opportunity to confront my mortality,” she said. “What is it going to take for us to recognize that we are souls traveling through time?”
So she let the doctors deal with her body, while she cared for her soul.
Brener is a psychotherapist and spiritual counselor in private practice, as well as a faculty member at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California. She was also a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute for Religion, in Los Angeles, at the time, but she adjusted her schedule to take time for herself to rest, exercise, meditate, pray, read, study and write (including columns for The Jewish Journal). She drew on the help and support of her daughter, friends and community, who heeded her signals for when to hold her close and when to leave her alone.
Chemotherapy didn’t make her too sick, she said, and so, as a result, she considers her bout with cancer a time of great healing and spiritual growth.
Moving to a place of depth shouldn’t require major trauma, Brener believes.
She cites one of her teachers, Berkeley therapist Stanley Kelleman, who taught that every person faces thousands of little daily deaths — making that tough phone call, taking that risk, surviving embarrassment. The trick, Brener said, is to recognize those moments and use them to build up muscle for the bigger shocks to come.
“We don’t give enough space to our experiences and challenges, whether they’re little challenges or big challenges. We don’t have enough rituals and we don’t take the time to go back to our previous experiences and ask ‘What have I learned?’” she said. “I think people don’t know that the trauma they experienced when their parents uprooted them when they were in junior high school, and they had to leave all their friends and move into a new town, can help them now when someone they love dies, or they get sick.”
Those who don’t take the time to understand how their mind and spirit process challenge, or to explore what they believe to be the most meaningful elements of their lives, will be blindsided when trauma inevitably hits, and might be leading a less meaningful existence than they could be.
In her classes, with clients and in her book, Brener points to the mourner’s path in the Holy Temple in ancient Jerusalem, set aside not only for those mourning the death of a close relative, but for those who have faced illness, financial loss or displacement — in other words, nearly everyone at some point. Those who were suffering found camaraderie, and the mourners path made mortality and loss a normal and visible part of daily life — a sharp contrast to the American Pollyanna gestalt.
“Today’s comforter is tomorrow’s mourner, and today’s mourner is tomorrow’s comforter,” Brener said. “But we live in a culture that doesn’t acknowledge that, where illness and death are aberrations,” she said.
Her cancer also taught her to live life fully immersed in the moment and to recognize the uncertainty and mystery inherent in every situation. Rather than allowing that uncertainty to make her fearful — though she knows that her cancer is likely to come back, though she knows what it is to walk on life’s narrow bridge described by Rebbe Nachman — she says it makes her open to how each new circumstance may unfold. She sees doors rather than walls, she said, referring to a question posed in Song of Songs.
“When I come upon a challenge, or come upon something some would say is tragic, I don’t assume anymore, because my life has taught me that everything is a possible door into something new and unimagined,” she said.
When Rabbi David Wolpe was in chemotherapy three years ago, the most important thing he felt he could do, when he could lift himself off the couch, was get up in front of his congregation as often as possible while he was bald.
“The chance to stand in front of people and say not just that being bald isn’t the worst thing in the world, and that chemo isn’t the worst thing in the world — as awful as it can be — but that this doesn’t destroy my faith and doesn’t change the way I feel about Judaism and about God, that for me was very precious,” said Wolpe, who leads Sinai Temple, a 2,200-family Conservative congregation in Westwood.
Wolpe, 51, has unenviable cancer credentials. His wife was diagnosed with cancer when their daughter, Samara, was an infant. Surgery and treatment cured her, but left her unable to have more children. In 2003, Wolpe suffered a grand mal seizure from what he later found out was a benign brain tumor that had to be surgically removed. Then, in 2006, a swelling in his abdomen turned out to be non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Wolpe is currently in remission, but there is no cure.
“For me, the future is always in conditional tense,” he said. “People talk about the future with great confidence — about children, grandchildren, weddings, bar mitzvahs. Once you’re sick, you lose that.”
But what you gain, he said, is a sharper understanding of how to spend, and not to spend, your days.
“It’s easy to live as though you have forever,” he said, citing a line from Jean-Paul Sartre’s “The Wall,” “but it’s a terrible mistake, because you don’t. And people don’t realize that on a visceral level until they face their own death.”
Having cancer allowed Wolpe to understand, and to teach, the power of acknowledging blessings.
“I don’t believe that God guarantees you good health, and I don’t believe that getting sick takes away all the many, many blessings that I have,” Wolpe said. “I’ve had people come in and say ‘Why me?’ when something [bad] happens, but I’ve never had someone say ‘I was born in the richest country on Earth, and I’ve never been hungry; why me?’ or, ‘I have a beautiful child; why me?’ Despite the cancer, I feel enormously blessed. Everyone knows that lesson, and when you say it, they acknowledge it, but when you say it when things are going badly, it has more power.”
His faith in God has not been shaken by his struggle, he writes in his most recent book, “Why Faith Matters” (HaperCollins, 2008). Rather, it has renewed his conviction that faith pushes people to be better, to give more of themselves and bring more light into the world.
“The single greatest lesson that cancer reinforces is that the quality of your life is the quality of your connections: connections to other people, whom — as well as what — do you love,” he said. Family, friends, community — each take on new meaning. Relationships with things like nature, or, for Wolpe, books, reveal themselves to be key components of living life well.
“If you can figure that out before you get sick, that is a wonderful gift of emotional wisdom,” he said.
Yom Kippur tries to push worshippers to that place not only with prayers that focus on mortality, but by imposing requirements to imitate corpses — no eating or drinking, wearing white, like shrouds. Going to a funeral, Wolpe says, can also bring a person to look death in the eye.
“Sometimes, for a second, they have a glimpse that this will be their fate as well, and they wonder, OK, so with whatever time I have left, what do I want to do? It focuses and sharpens the mind, and it should pull you away from trivia.”
Cancer has taught him, he said, to embrace pain and to not fear death.
“The things that matter a lot can come with pain, and pain is not bad or destructive or to be feared,” Wolpe said. “In some ways, the more you insulate yourself from pain, the more things will hurt you, and the more things you’ll be constantly afraid of, whereas if you have a little less fear because you have a little more pain, you actually are freer to move about in the world.”
Forty-eight hours stand out in Rabbi John Rosove’s seven-month bout with cancer. On a Friday afternoon last February, the doctor who had performed Rosove’s biopsy called and told the rabbi of Temple Israel of Hollywood that he had advanced prostate cancer and that the prognosis was dire.
“I needed to be scraped off the floor. I thought I was done. I thought I wouldn’t see my kids grow up, and that I wouldn’t see grandchildren, that I wouldn’t have retirement. This was like a bolt out of hell,” said Rosove, 59.
Rosove’s brother, an oncologist, calmed him somewhat, but it wasn’t until that Sunday evening that Rosove spoke to a specialist who had viewed his pathology reports. The doctor told Rosove there was great reason to believe this cancer would not kill him. Two months later Rosove, who has led the 950-family Reform congregation for 21 years, underwent successful surgery that revealed that his cancer had not spread. He will complete eight weeks of radiation therapy two days after Yom Kippur.
Rosove vacillates between still wanting to exact physical revenge on that first doctor, and wanting to thank him.
“He robbed me of hope — I thought I had a couple years to live,” he said. “But I also confronted my mortality in a way I had never been forced to before, and I’ve been somewhat dealing with that fact ever since.”
Rosove said the brush with death has greatly affected his perspective.
“This episode didn’t change me dramatically, rather it enhanced what I already was. It deepened everything,” he said. “I’ve always been a grateful person, and I’m even more grateful now. I’ve always been aware that I don’t have control, ultimately, over anything, and I’m even more aware of that now. The only control we have is our attitude — and choosing life.”
He now takes more time for himself, reading and studying or doing things that make him happy, like spending time with his wife and kids, getting in a round of golf, playing with his dog, listening to music. He and his wife, now empty-nesters, have gone through the calendar, blocking out time to travel and spend time with the people important in their lives in the coming year. He hopes to go to Israel for an upcoming sabbatical.
And he has trimmed the things that used to suck his energy — problems in the synagogue that others can handle, giving too much of his attention to overly needy congregants.
His faith, he said, is strong, and he never blamed God. Rather, he has found more meaning in prayers and sees godliness in all the people who rallied around him — brilliant doctors, angelic nurses, a supportive community and a loving family.
Still, there were some very dark moments.
In the two months between diagnosis and surgery, Rosove says he was angry and deeply depressed.
“I was raw and anxious, and I felt like I couldn’t really take care of anyone else before the surgery,” he said.
At first he confided in only a few colleagues and the top lay leaders at Temple Israel, feeling the need for privacy and knowing it would be destabilizing for the community to see its rabbi stricken.
Immediately following the surgery, he sent a letter to all congregants, telling them the news and the good prognosis.
He said he won’t be speaking over the High Holy Days directly about his struggle for life, but he knows the themes he has learned through his cancer will be present in his sermons — the need to live every moment with purpose, to understand that a lifetime is finite, that a soul needs nurturing as much as a body does.
Over the past several weeks, when Rosove has gone for his daily 7 a.m. dose of radiation, he has started the regimen with a Zen meditation that focuses him on being fully present in the moment.
He sees a similar message in the period starting at Rosh Hashanah and ending in Yom Kippur.
“We have 10 days of life, from birth to death to renewal, and all you can do is be where you are and not try to be anywhere else. We are so fragmented and we usually have anxiety and things that trouble us, whether it’s economic, or family relationships or whatever those things are that legitimately concern us. But we can’t be of help to anyone else if we’re fragmented. We have to be fully who we are and where we are,” he said.
Where he is now is a place of gratitude and hope, he said. But he admits he doesn’t know whether he could have gotten here if his prognosis had not been as good.
“I look for inspiration everywhere. The positive role models for me are the people who wrestle with God and who struggle, but who stay positive,” Rosove said. “I have so many of those people around me, and that is one of the blessings of being in a community like this.”
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