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When I stood before you last Rosh Hashanah it was a great celebration of pride and purpose and of how far we had come as a congregation. We were just beginning to write a new chapter in the life of Holy Blossom Temple. The dominant emotions for me then were excitement and gratitude and curiosity. And in the quiet moments of personal reflection then, I privately admitted to myself that seeing our congregation through transition was the hardest thing I had ever done. In my private prayers last Rosh Hashanah I thanked God for giving me the strength to endure it and for the many good partners along the way. Today, one year later, on this Rosh Hashanah, in the quiet moments of personal reflection over another year gone, I can say that now, fighting cancer is the hardest thing I have ever done.
Rabbi Yael Splansky – Sermon: Second Day Rosh Hashanah 5776
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Some might think the best pretext for this sermon is the following Yiddish proverb, “If God lives on earth, people would break his windows”. But I prefer another Yiddish proverb instead: “If things are not as you wish, wish them as they are”. When I stood before you last Rosh Hashanah it was a great celebration of pride and purpose and of how far we had come as a congregation. We were just beginning to write a new chapter in the life of Holy Blossom Temple. The dominant emotions for me then, were excitement and gratitude and curiosity. And in the quiet moments of personal reflection then, I privately admitted to myself that seeing our congregation through transition was the hardest thing I had ever done. In my private prayers last Rosh Hashanah I thanked God for giving me the strength to endure it and for the many good partners along the way. Today, one year later, on this Rosh Hashanah, in the quiet moments of personal reflection over another year gone, I can say that now, fighting cancer is the hardest thing I have ever done. God willing, 5776 will be simpler.
I could use a little less excitement, but as the Yiddish proverb goes, “Even the smoothest path is full of stones”. No life is free from pain…even hard working and kind hearted rabbis are not protected from tzures. I’ve never spoken of it from this Bimah in these many months. Those who know me know that I am a pretty private person. A rabbi’s primary purpose is, of course, to teach text. Today, however, the text I bring to share with you is the text of my life. For nine months now, biology and chemistry have been my Torah. Our sages say one cannot fully understand Torah unless one has stumbled in it. Many people encourage me with compliments and say, how graceful. But the path has been rocky. There have been many moments when I felt myself stumbling in the Torah of life’s hard knocks. But I did not fall.
Before I continue, not another word until I acknowledge that among us, are many dear congregants who have truly suffered, and are carrying much heavier burdens, and for a lot longer than I have. And I look at you, and I see real pillars of strength. Who among us has not accompanied a loved one along one rough road or another, or another? My story, by contrast, is not unique, unfortunately it is very common. And in my heart of hearts I believe that my story will have a happy ending, I pray that through these few reflections you may find something familiar, and affirming, or something challenging and motivating, or perhaps, the simple comfort in knowing that we are indeed, all in it together. Each one, doing our best to muscle our way, through this God-given life.
In preparing for today, I found this in my computer. I had forgotten that I had written it. 4:53 a.m. March 12, 2015: I like to see all the shades of gray, and consider them. I like to weigh them out, against one another. That’s how I’ve always been, and as a rabbi, that’s my training. This now, however, is a strange exercise in juxtapositions. A collision of extremes. I am, on the one hand, utterly shocked and disbelieved by my diagnosis, and at the same time, I am not at all surprised. Hello cancer, I’ve been expecting you. Not so soon, but expecting none the less. Why not me? I feel on the one hand, lucky and also unlucky. I am prepared and I am woefully unprepared. I feel confident that all will go well for me, and I feel totally vulnerable. I am surrounded by so much support: family, congregation, old friends and new, colleagues, strangers, medical experts of all kinds, and, on the other hand, sometimes I am entirely alone. At the end of the day, I am the only one in my skin. On the one hand, I hate the machines and the tests and the new books on my shelf, and the needles, and the hospitals and the medicines, and on the other hand, I love them. I am so grateful for them. On the one hand, I feel strong, sometimes even triumphant, on top of it, and there are days when I feel myself pinned down under the weight of it, crushed with worry. I don’t want any part of this… none of it. But I don’t get to choose. A friend who knows, calls it a choice-less choice.
Now I don’t keep a journal…this is really the only thing like this in my computer. Many have advised me to keep a journal. They say that you grow, and it’s a journey. They say cancer changes you. They say you come out on the other side stronger, and wiser. Truth be told, I thought I was already pretty strong and wise. And that’s primarily because I have learned from you, good people. Throughout our seventeen years together, studying Torah together, and inviting me into your lives at delicate moments of trouble and trial, you have taught me well, about vulnerability and vitality. You have trusted me with your insights of fear and faith, and I am stronger and wiser because of you–my teachers.
So today, I try to reciprocate in one small measure. Something of what I have learned. This experience reinforces what I already knew to be true. When a congregant wrote to me about her own illness this year, and confessed that she felt paralysed by the deepest, darkest fear that she was somehow being punished by God, I was able to write the following:
Dear Laura, (today I’ll call her Laura) I am so sorry to hear about what you are facing. I’m glad that you trust me with your big questions. Email is a lousy way to talk about such nuanced and important things. I look forward to the day when we can sit together and really talk. But in the meantime, since I hear the urgency in your voice, let me say that I do not believe illness is punishment. (Full stop.) I believe that you are a very good person. But even if you were a miserable human being, I do not believe illness would come your way as a result. I believe that illness is as much a part of life as is good health. And I don’t mind sharing with you that I write you at a time when I’m facing my own frightening diagnosis. The question is not, why do bad things happen to good people, the question is, when do bad things happen to good people, how do we respond? We don’t get to choose, like when or where cancer cells grow, but we do get to choose how to respond when they do. Do we choose to be proactive or passive? Private or public? Optimistic or pessimistic? Fearful or courageous? Some days this and some days that, and these are very personal decisions. Some moments this way, some moments that way. Even when there is so much outside of our control, some things we must remember, are within our control. These things we can choose. I know that you are blessed with family and friends, and a community that cares about you very much. While you live in your own skin, you are not alone. One of my many prayers for you, Laura, is that you will feel less alone and less frightened. Would you take comfort in knowing that we are including your name in Mi Shebeirach this Shabbat? Yes, of course, I will keep you in my own private prayers. I ask that you do the same for me. That’s the power of sacred community. That’s another thing I believe in wholeheartedly. Be well, Laura. Rifua l’shma. A complete and whole healing. Yael.
This exchange between two moms, came about because in a synagogue community we are not alone. This is the essential blessing of being a part of such a community. I always knew this to be true but this year I experienced it in new ways, as a mother and a wife. I know my husband and our boys are less afraid and more supported because they are a part of this congregation, not because they are the rabbi’s kids, but because they’re around, and people know them and care about them. Just one example comes in the form of meals that the Bikur Cholim arranges for us from time to time. Nutritious and delicious meals, prepared by generous congregants and dropped at the door. These have saved Adam and me some precious time and energy when we needed to conserve. But, more than the practical benefits, each meal was a lesson to us and to our children in the power of sacred community. Without family in town, we were buoyed by the embrace of the Holy Blossom congregation. And again, not because we are a rabbi’s family, but because we have volunteers who are extraordinary and know how to provide when people need it. This quiet mitzvah speaks volumes about the character of our congregation.
Now I will never know why cancer settled in my body. I will do everything I can to keep it from returning. But God only knows. So, my faith fills in the gap between the known and the unknown. Between the facts of life and the mysteries of life. There’s a b’rachah for this: Baruch Atah Adonai haham ha razime. Praised are you, Adonai, our God, Ruler of the Universe, Knower of secrets. To say this b’rachah is somehow liberating. I don’t have to know everything, because God does. Since my earliest childhood memories, I have always experienced prayer as something very real. Not foolish, not an empty ritual, not a crutch, but very powerful. But I have never been the subject of people’s prayers until now. And I have to say, to my surprise, that the accumulation of these prayers somehow have substance. They have volume and weight and largesse. It’s difficult for me to articulate, actually. They add up to something almost tangible, for me. So I want to thank you this day for holding me in your prayers. They have indeed sustained me. And I want to suggest, that if you have loved ones who are unwell, instead of saying to them, I am thinking about you all the time, let them know that you are praying for them all the time. Thinking about is a form of praying about. And you’d be surprised how much it will mean to them. I personally don’t pray for God to rescue me. I pray for God to make me strong. Never before was my experience of God bodily, as it has been this year. I never said like Job, “Through my flesh I see God”. Until my diagnosis, my encounters with the Divine were through my head, and my heart and my neshamah, but now my hair and my fingernails and my white blood cells and lymph nodes I never knew I had, all have something to report to me. Every miraculous thing, every quirky side effect, every achy joint, points to the wonder and the mystery of God’s world and the God-given ability to heal.
One congregant among you brought me a gift from Israel. A thin, little red bracelet, with a Hamsa on it. Now I am not a superstitious person. I do not believe that the red thread will ward off the evil eye. I do not believe the little silver hand will protect or shield me from harm. But I’ve been wearing this little gift every day, nonetheless. It’s a reminder to me…I’ll tell you why I wear it. It’s a reminder to me that I must do all that I can to protect myself from harm. Remember to eat, remember to drink, remember to sleep. The little blue eye at the centre of the Hamsa stands for God’s watchful eye. I see it, I look upon it, and I hear the voice in the back of my mind, “Are you taking care, Yael? Your family and congregation need you for the long haul, you know.” And usually that’s enough to get me on the treadmill. That is prayer in motion.
Another Yiddish proverb: “Chutzpah succeeds”. With my doctor’s permission, I have pushed myself, to work as much as I could throughout chemo. I take one week off and then have two weeks back at work, and that pattern for each cycle. And so far I’ve been lucky with daily radiation. I have my afternoon appointment calling me soon. It feels good to work. It feels good to do for… to apply myself to something other than myself, to give myself to others, not only to myself. It is good to be reminded of who I am, not only patient, reminder that I am alive.
Moments ago, we read from the Machzor, Adom Yissodo, You have created us and You know what we are. Kihane badar v’sam, we are but flesh and blood. Adom yissodo d’yado v’sofo l’adar Man’s origin is dust and dust is his end. Each of us is a shattered urn, grass that must wither, a flower that will fade, a shadow moving on, a cloud passing by, a particle of dust floating on the wind, a dream soon forgotten.
V’atah HaMelech el chai vikayom. But You, O God, are the Sovereign One, the Everlasting God. This beautiful and haunting piyut contrasts our fleeting days to God’s eternality. And it is not a fatalist’s prayer. Make no mistake…just the opposite. It says that we have a chance at eternity. By attaching ourselves to the Eternal God. When we create for ourselves, day in and day out, as hard as it is, a life of meaning and purpose. We can cross the divide from suffering to service. That is every person’s sacred task.
The composers and compilers of our Machzor did not intend to traumatize us, so don’t mistake my tears today. They only wanted to speak the truth as they knew it, so that we might live more fully. So we might read that prayer poem and ask, so okay, I’m mortal. Nu? And the Machzor says back to us, so what are you going to do about it? Afar, yes, we are only dust, but dust can make for a strong foundation on which we can build a house, or even a synagogue. And we may be broken vessels, but those shards can be reassembled and reconfigured to create a beautiful mosaic. And yes, we are withering grass and wilting flowers, but these enrich the soil that is beneath so that life can renew and emerge. And yes, we are but a shadow. The psalmist says our days on earth are like a shadow. And one commentator asks, “So what kind of shadow is that”? And the answer comes, “not a shadow cast by a wall, not a shadow cast by a tree, but as a shadow cast by a bird flying overhead.” Let the shadow that we are be a sign of life, and of movement and mission. Adom Yissodo is placed in out Machzor between prayers devoted to the themes of Givorot and Kiddushah…courage and holiness. That is right where the sick and those who love them reside. Wedged right in between courage and holiness.
Each Shabbat, we end our services with the words v’adot af kedruchee. Into Your hands, O God, I entrust my spirit, and when I sleep and when I wake, and with my spirit and my body too, as long God is with me, I shall not fear. For the mountains may crumble and the hills may shake, but my love will never leave you, God says. Things fall apart, but God’s presence is steady, and faithful. O God of life, we pray that You will write us into the Book of Life, so that we may live. Strengthen our bodies and our souls so that we are able to fill our days in Your service. And that we might make every day a Shechehianu.
Together, Baruch, Atah Adonai, Elohenu Melech Ha olom Sheheheanu, v’keamanu v,hegeanu lazman hazeh. Praised are you Adonai , Our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has given us this good life, who sustains us each day, and who has enabled us to reach this moment so filled with joy and blessing. Amen.