Last week on Rosh HaShanah, I looked out at the sea of faces in synagogue and declared: “Today, I stand before you, my heart full of joy for having made it to this day. I am not cancer-free, but the medications I’m now taking are gentle, and are controlling the disease.” The congregation erupted: Amen.
During this autumn holiday season, Jews receive a formula for a fulfilling life: teshuva (repentance or returning to your best self)), tefilla (prayer), and tzedakah (charity). Many American Jews, I think, readily find meaning in the concepts of charity and repentance, but may be more baffled by the benefits of prayer — particularly those who aren’t certain who or what might be listening, or especially those who believe that no one hears them. I myself can’t always fully embrace faith, and the God I believe in is not one who controls the onset or delay of disease or sudden disaster.
And yet, I want to advocate for tefillah, the power of prayer. It can be a critical resource for anyone facing a grave illness, or otherwise acquainted with the fragility of life.
My own familiar world collapsed in the course of a few days. On the eve of 2015, hours before the year turned, we heard news that my sister-in-law Ali had run out of options. At the age of 46, the mother of two young boys, she had been valiantly struggling with ovarian cancer for two and a half years. Now oncologists predicted she only had three months left. She made it to the end of February. Three days later, on the afternoon of her funeral, I received confirmation of my own diagnosis of ovarian cancer. Already dazed by Ali’s death, I found myself lost in a dark cloud. It cast a gloom over everything, making it impossible to see what lay beyond the step directly before me.
Last year during the holidays, I sat in the pews in the balcony of my Upper West Side synagogue, scrawnier and weaker than I had been in my adult life. I was pleased to hide my arms in a sweater to conform to the laws of modesty; uncovered, they resembled putty stretched thin, sagging and wobbly on the underside. The words of the High Holy Days’ supplication, Unetanah Tokef, cut me sharply: “Who will live and who will die? Who in their time, and who not in their time?”
I lacked the stamina to stand for much of the service; I sobbed in a fit of sadness when my husband stood up for the Mourner’s Kaddish to commemorate the little sister he’d lost. I was overwhelmed with aches and chills from chemo medications. I was overcome with gratitude for having made it to that day.
In the past year and a half, prayers have eased my anxiety, connected me to friends and strangers, encouraged me to pause and appreciate spectacular sunsets, the wonder of my body’s recovery, the magic of climbing Masada at dawn and the enchantment of standing in the midst of that barren desert with hundreds of Jews from around the world. I’ve written my own prayers, created a healing ceremony for the mikvah, the ritual bath, participated in a Psalm circle over the phone – in which friends read and analyzed hymns of healing for a few consecutive weeks. I signed up for a prayer exchange, and received a name – Rivka Chaya Bat Leah – whose physical and spiritual health I pray for every week as I light the Shabbat candles. I think of her, and I feel less alone. I think of her, and I’m reminded that some anonymous soul is thinking about me, praying for my well-being.
On several instances I’ve also happened upon events that sent chills up my spine. One occurred when my rabbi, Lauren Grabelle Herrmann, accompanied me to a CT scan, and brought along some prayer books. We were reading together, when an older woman sitting in the tiny waiting room asked us if we happened to be reading Psalms. Upon hearing that yes we were, she proceeded to tell us that her husband was now getting a scan, and she was searching for a prayer for him. Oh and also, that she herself had ovarian cancer in 1989, and at the time, she’d found great solace in Psalm 116. Again she said, I don’t know why you’re here, but I want you to know that I had ovarian cancer in 1989. When she was out of earshot, the rabbi and I read Psalm 116. I cried. It reminded me of all I had undergone, all the many steps in treatment that could have failed, or created new obstacles, and yet I had survived, of how I was flourishing even as others like Ali did not. “Thou has delivered my soul from death, mine eyes from tears, and my feet from stumbling.” After I left the facility that night, I wandered into the buzz of Midtown as the workday was ending, and I felt as drunk on life as the young people gathering in Bryant Park for a glass of wine. I felt protected by a stillness of spirit. I felt at once giddy at being alive and at peace.