Cancer At Passover Makes Me Feel Like The Seder’s Simple Child — And That’s Okay
And it will come to pass if your children say to you, “What is this service to you?” You shall say, “It is a Passover sacrifice to the Lord, for He passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt when He smote the Egyptians, and He saved our houses.”
Exodus 12:26-27, on The Wicked Child
I stood in the doorway of the office offering up the conclusion of what could only be described as a rant.
“All these people want to pray for me!” I spat. “What am I supposed to do with that?”
My colleague sat quietly for a moment, letting the tirade about faith, religion, and the afterlife hang between us. Her academic title may be Clinical Director of the Department of Psychiatry but she is exalted in the department as the woman who solves problems – all kinds of problems apparently.
“Faith,” she paused thoughtfully, “is complicated.”
I stood still, pondering how she could be right and so concise at the same time, boiling my entire rant down to its core dilemma, when my phone buzzed.
“It’s my wife telling me to buy lottery tickets. The jackpot is astronomical,” I told the Clinical Director.
“Somebody’s gotta win,” she shrugged.
“For me, the draw is those twelve hours between when you buy the ticket and when you lose,” I said. “That’s faith — the time between when you buy the ticket and when you die.”
My words came out scornfully. It’s not me, it’s the cancer, I told myself. But still, I couldn’t help feeling…wicked.
The prayers on my behalf began as soon as word started to spread that there was a malignant tumor eating away at my left kidney and creeping up into my veins. The prayer contagion began with family and loved ones and spread to their friends, and then went viral after I started to write about my experience. Every time an article comes out, I receive dozens of responses from strangers. Ninety nine out of one hundred of them are well-meaning and genuine — including the ones trying to convert me to their own particular faith — and I genuinely appreciate every single one.
Yet it feels strange going through cancer treatment without praying, particularly while so many people in my life and beyond are praying for me.
Instead of turning to God, my thoughts stroll back, back before cancer, to my childhood. In the years after memories started to stick but before hormones started to flow, I had a complicated relationship with my Judaism. Though I had attended Hebrew School each week and was an excellent student in the rest of my life, I couldn’t read Hebrew. Sure, If I focused very hard, I could sound most words out, which were gibberish to me until I read the English translations, which were also really just anglicized gibberish.
Reading the Four Questions in Hebrew out loud around the Seder table was my annual trek up Everest. It never occurred to me to practice in advance, so I usually just cried my way through the questions as my family listened to each stammering word. I would avoid making eye contact out of sheer embarrassment.
At the same Seder, we spoke of the Four Children: the Wise, the Wicked, the Simple, and the One Who Does Not Know to Ask. The Wise Child was described as posing inquisitive questions about the faith, eager to learn more about our people’s heritage and our relationship with God. Perhaps in another life, I could have been the Wise Child, I thought, but I knew it was not me, with my bumbling Hebrew. The thought of being Wicked actually had a certain appeal. If I were separate and above it all, then it wouldn’t matter that I had just butchered the one basic task assigned to me. In the end, I mostly hoped I wasn’t actually Simple.
Decades later, much has changed. I’m grown, with a small child of my own. The more I have learned in life, the less I am certain I know. I knew, for example, that I would live into my eighties with grandchildren gathered around my deathbed until the moment I was diagnosed with metastatic kidney cancer. Being Simple no longer scares me. It just seems the most reasonable.
So no, I haven’t prayed since receiving my cancer diagnosis last January. The last time I can truly remember praying to God was before the results of a math test were announced in the eleventh grade — an admittedly misguided use of prayer. Who wants to believe in a God that will ensure a good score on a high school math test, but only if the student prays a certain way? I don’t remember how that exam turned out, but I can’t think of a time that I’ve spoken directly and earnestly to God since. And yet, I feel as Jewish as I was on the day of my Bar Mitzvah.
But the fact that even cancer has not catalyzed a relationship with God gnaws at me. I don’t recall speaking to God the night I got the news, nor the morning of my surgery. I didn’t make any pleas when I started receiving immunotherapy or as I sat waiting for results of my follow up scan.
Through the invasive medical procedures, the frustrating well-wishes, and the pain, I have realized — I don’t pray to God because I don’t really know what my relationship with God is. I don’t know if I believe in God or if God believes in me. Have I been passed over, or not?
Or have I passed over prayer? I am reminded of Jack Riemer’s Likrat Shabbat:
If we would only use our power justly.
We cannot merely pray to You, O God, to end disease,
For you have already given us great minds with which
To search out cures and healing,
If we would only use them constructively.
Strangers frequently tell me that they intend to daven for me for a refuah shlema (speedy and complete recovery.) Often, they ask for my Hebrew name and then my mother’s Hebrew name — I assume so as to pray in the traditionally correct manner. Sheepishly, I respond with many thanks and the information they’ve requested. I am touched and feel so embraced by the warmth of this community of both loved ones and strangers who want to connect with God over my struggle. But a part of me feels false. How can I offer up my Hebrew name so that people may pray for me when I won’t even pray for myself?
I am the Wicked Child, who separates himself from his faith, once more. The difference now is that I do not wish to be. There are no spoils for the act of remaining apart from my community, but I feel compelled to be true in my absence of faith. Does that make me Wicked? In 2018, maybe asking such questions is what the Wise Child would do.
In response to this piece, I may I’ll receive messages from well-meaning strangers in our community. They may wish me good health ahead, and some may correct my small child’s interpretation of these biblical lessons. They’ll write to enlighten me the way God has asked them to speak to their children.
They’ll be right, of course, revealing once and for all that when it comes to our faith, perhaps I am still the Simple Child. And that’s okay. I hope that my genuine appreciation for their thoughts and prayers at this difficult time will reflect back what I should have always known — that even a Simple Child can love and be loved in our community.
Adam P. Stern, MD is the Director of Psychiatric Applications at the Berenson-Allen Center for Noninvasive Brain Stimulation, and Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School