click image above to play
Delivered May 3, 2016 upon receiving
The Israel Cancer Research Fund’s Women of Action Award
When Norman Shiner called with this very special invitation, I was, of course, very honoured, but truth be told, it wasn’t an easy “Yes.” ICRF is a remarkable organization, led by remarkable people, so why did Norman’s call catch me off-guard? Because my ‘cancer story,’ Thank God, is not remarkable. And that’s how I would like it to remain, thank-you-very-much. Yes, I have a few war stories from surgery, chemo, radiation, hormone therapies, and a number of persistent side-effects, but fortunately my cancer was a type the doctors know a lot about. Fortunately I live in a time and a place where I have access to the finest treatments we have to date. Fortunately I have resources of all kinds, including beloved family, dear friends, and extraordinary community to support my kids, my husband, and me. I count my many blessings and consider myself lucky on all fronts.
My only credential for this very special award, if any at all, is that I am a rabbi. I’ve only spoken publicly once before about my cancer journey. Although I play a public role in the Jewish Community, I’m actually a pretty private person. It was one sermon, on one holy day — last Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year — when I was in the midst of daily radiation and still muscling my way through the effects of some rough-and-tough chemo. My husband, Adam, rightly said if I didn’t speak of it, it would be the elephant in the room. And so, in good faith, I shared with my congregation some personal reflections set against the backdrop of a day entirely devoted to the themes of life and death, of taking stock. Rosh HaShanah is when we thank God for our lives and humbly ask for more of it. With nothing but a prayer in our hands, we stand shoulder to should with our fellow Jews and we ask for more life. That is, in fact, what we’re doing together here today, too, I suppose – asking for more life.
What I did not anticipate was what would become of the audio recording of that sermon. To my surprise, it took on a life of its own. Ten thousand people have listened to it. Many have sent it on to friends who are struggling with their own illness or with the illness of someone they love. I still don’t fully understand why it caught on as it did, but my hunch tells me it has something to do with a deep desire among many — who most of the time live happily a secular world – but when push comes to shove, they need more. When the shoe drops, when it comes to life-rattling fear, we need the language and the ritual to address matters of the spirit. Therapy and pills and yoga will take us so far, but many people quietly seek an intelligent faith, which is not a crutch nor an escape nor an easy answer, but intelligent faith which gives insight, encouragement, and can be an anchor when we might otherwise drift away from the life we desperately wish to hold onto.
So how does a person of faith work her way through suffering? By division of labour. Division of responsibility – among my doctors, my self, and my God. The doctors’ job is to treat the patient. The patient’s job is to embrace the treatments – including eating well, exercising and getting enough rest. (I’m still working on that!) And God’s job? God’s job to make both the doctors and the patient brave in our respective pursuits. I don’t believe God places one cell like this and another like that, but I do believe God is the power we tap into, to heal. (Again, isn’t that what we are doing here together today? Healing?)
If I were to give my words today a title, it would be: “God in the Laboratory.” When I visit my congregants in the hospital or at home by the bedside, I believe God is there, too, but today I want to call attention to God in the laboratory.
A young girl once asked Einstein if he believed in God. He took her question seriously and answered: “Everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the Universe—a Spirit (with a capital S) vastly superior to that of man.”
I imagine the heroes of cancer research are motivated by something similar. Even if it goes unarticulated, to devote one’s life’s work to one small, significant question, is to pursue the Spirit of the laws of the Universe. Scientists in cancer research are doing holy work. They treat their laboratories like holy spaces. There are rules of purity there. Rules of exact timing. Rules of devotion.
The end of Einstein’s 1932 personal credo reads like a prayer:
The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mystical.
It is the underlying power of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, one who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is – if not dead, then at least blind. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their simplest forms—this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I belong to the rank of devoutly religious men. For me it suffices to ponder these secrets and to attempt humbly to grasp with my mind a mere image of the Lofty Structure of all there is.” (Philipp Frank, Einstein: His Life and Times. Knopf, 1947, reprinted by Frank Press, 2007, pg, 284.)
Tomorrow I leave for Israel – A Social Justice trip with my congregation. There we will witness how scientists and judges, rabbis and activists, artists and farmers work to make true the words we said at our Passover seder tables just ten days ago. “BaShanah HaBa’ah Birushalayim. Next year in Jerusalem. “ For some, this is an expression of our longing to return to the sacred land of Israel. But for all who say “Next year in Jerusalem,” it is a proclamation of the age-old Jewish belief that there is a better world yet to be created — that constant striving for a world where no one is in pain and no one is afraid. This, I’m sure, is part of what drives the ICRF scientists in their laboratories. They are driven, not only to better understand the mysteries of GOD’S world – the cell and the sequencing of a genome – but also to make OUR world more whole, more kind, more brave.
We have every reason to invest our hope in these physicians. As a rabbi and as a grateful patient I believe that the Source of their brilliance, the original Source of their drive and determination, the primary Source of their success is the God of All Life and the God of All Mysteries.
So let me conclude with a blessing for the women and men who devote their lives to cancer research. There is a blessing for just about every occasion in Jewish life and today is a day to honour those who are enabling us to live longer and better with and without cancer. This bracha, this blessing celebrates the great work of great minds and calls attention to God Who is right their with them, over their shoulders, in the laboratories, Who inspires their worthy pursuits, and Who delights in their successes. “Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech HaOlam, sheNatan mich-vodo l’vasar vadam. Praised are You, Eternal our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who has given a measure of Your glory, a measure of Your brilliance to flesh and blood.” Amen.