Friday, September 8, 2017

Teshuva from the School of Hard Knocks

I’m sure hoping for a sweeter year this year.

Rosh Hashanah looms, and we struggle to make sense of the past year – the trials and tribulations, the insanity that has taken hold of our nation’s politics; the sicknesses, financial difficulties, pain and suffering that have afflicted so many; the ongoing disasters in Florida and Texas, the danger that is North Korea; the ugliness on display in Charlottesville – where does one begin in preparing for the Day of Judgment?

Personally, I am trying to look at the year I just experienced, and attempting to learn from it.   I write these lines to help myself focus, and hope that others might perhaps find some of this relevant to themselves as well.

We pray Zochreinu L’Chaim – for Life itself, but also that we might live in good health and that our bodies continue to seamlessly function – this gift for ourselves and our families we need to literally beg Hashem for and not take for granted.

I had a “rough year”.  Of course, compared to what so many others endured – including friends and family who have lost close relatives, or agonized with children with chronic and debilitating illnesses, physical or spiritual, or who have suffered financial calamity, or other suffering ר"ל – I have had a fantastic year, and should do nothing but get down on my knees and gratefully count my blessings.  Nevertheless, for me personally, this was a rougher year than usual, with some special challenges.

I resigned my position as Rabbi of the Young Israel of Forest Hills last summer, intending to make Aliyah within a few months.   But we nevertheless are still living in Brooklyn, due primarily to two occurrences that I did not anticipate last Rosh Hashana.

First, my dear father-in-law, Rabbi Monni Weisberger, had a tragic fall leaving him with a terrible injury from which he has not (so far) recovered.  (Please daven for Moshe ben Yehudis, amongst all Cholei Yisroel).

Second, I received a jarring diagnosis – I had contracted prostate cancer – the same illness which was the final undoing of my father ז"ל.

I won’t go into any details here, but dealing with the issue – the biopsies and MRIs, the agonizing over the decision regarding which unpleasant treatment to pursue, the scare of additional symptoms that suggested I might have more extensive cancer (thankfully not) and much else – took many months and lots of energy.  Baruch Hashem, I underwent a successful prostate removal surgery, and am well on the road to recovery.

But in many days of convalescing, I had some “Hirhurei Teshuva”, or spiritual thoughts to ponder:

    1. Gratitude to Hashem for watching over me – this could have been so much worse.

A cursory glance at Florida and Houston suffices to realize how fragile our lives are. This essay is not the place to speculate on faith issues (Emuna) in the wake of large natural disasters, which in any case can lead only to the conclusion that we are privy to no real answers in this world.

However, one thought offered by many of our Sages is that sometimes Hashem sends us overwhelming events to (a) humble us from our arrogance in thinking we are in control of the world and our lives, and (b) as a reminder that we ought not take our “normal” pleasant lives for granted.

Up until this time in my life, I was certainly aware of prostate cancer due to my father’s illness, but it seemed much removed from me. My prostate – that was just part of my plumbing that I knew little about, nor cared much for . . . I assumed that it was doing its job – whatever that is – and we had best leave each other alone.

I found out quickly, however, that my prostate was in fact something that deserved a lot of concern; left alone it would literally kill me, and not in a pleasant way.  Baruch Hashem, I have now been declared (with a 99% probability) cancer free.  Compared to so many who suffered so much from this frightful illness, I got a wonderful reprieve.

This was brought home even more deeply with the tragic passing of Assemblyman Michael Simanowitz ז"ל, son of my very dear friends יבדלו לחיים Shalom & Sheila  Simanowitz.   I don’t have the words to express the pain that I feel for them and the extended family on this tragic loss.   And it only redoubles my feeling of “There but for the Grace of G-d, go I”.

My takeaway for Rosh Hashanah is quite clear.  Serious illness is not something that only happens to other people; it might be a lot closer than one realizes.  In fact, none of the amazing systems in our bodies should be taken for granted.  That “strange” Asher Yatzar blessing that we say upon going to the bathroom is so sublime and real, expressing the vital lesson that we literally could not last for even one moment, but for the Grace of G-d who makes it all work seamlessly – until it doesn’t.  I learned how very fragile life is – what a lesson for Rosh Hashana!

We pray Zochreinu L’Chaim (Remeber us for Life) – for Life itself, but also that we might live in good health and that our bodies continue to seamlessly function – this gift for ourselves and our families we need to literally beg Hashem for and not take for granted.

We assume that we will be healthy, that rivers will not overflow, that the winds will not pummel us: Rosh Hashana is a time that we must realize how very dependent on Him we are for every moment

(English - May we forget this year what our doctors look like)

    2. Gratitude to the special people in life who cared for me
Laying in my hospital bed, too weak to lift my leg, unable to walk without enormous effort, I came to appreciate the wonderful people in my life who love and care for me and without whom I really could not go on.  Where would I be without the love and concern of my wonderful wife and children and sisters?  How amazing it is to hear the soothing voice of my mother and mother in law encouraging me!  How incredibly special to get chizuk from my Rebbe and Rebbitzen, Rav Michel & Faige Twerski שליט"א, who made me feel loved and worthy of recovery!   How fortunate I am to have the care of wonderful physicians and nurses who went above and beyond in advising me, helping me, and making sure that I got far better care than I deserved!

And, last and far from least, how encouraging and heartwarming it was to hear from my friends and extended family the sincere wishes that I recuperate and to know how many prayers and chapters of Tehillim were said on my behalf . . . how truly blessed I am!

Certainly, on Rosh Hashanah it is time to try to reciprocate, in the small way that I can, and to pour out my heart to Hashem for all of these wonderful people in wishing that they – and all of Klal Yisrael and good people everywhere – be inscribed for Life, for Health; that they should not have to face the very difficult challenges that, but for the Grace of G-d, can happen so easily.

Bringing me to:
    3. Resolving that I have been granted renewed Life for a greater purpose
It is critical to consider the importance of Bitachon – living in Trust of Hashem – as we are reminded constantly during this time of year.  The Haftarah of Parshat Shoftim (Yeshayahu chap 51) exhorts us to trust in Him, and Him alone.
אָנֹכִי אָנֹכִי הוּא מְנַחֶמְכֶם מִי אַתְּ וַתִּירְאִי מֵאֱנוֹשׁ יָמוּת  
 I, yea I am He Who consoles you; who are you that you fear man who will die?

וַתִּשְׁכַּח ה' עֹשֶׂךָ נוֹטֶה שָׁמַיִם וְיֹסֵד אָרֶץ וַתְּפַחֵד תָּמִיד כָּל הַיּוֹם  מִפְּנֵי חֲמַת הַמֵּצִיק . . . וְאַיֵּה חֲמַת הַמֵּצִיק
 And you forgot the Lord your Maker, Who spread out the heavens and founded the earth, and you fear constantly the whole day because of the wrath of the oppressor . . . Now where is the wrath of the oppressor? 

וְאָנֹכִי֙ ה' אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ רֹגַ֣ע הַיָּ֔ם וַיֶּהֱמ֖וּ גַּלָּ֑יו ה' צְבָא֖וֹת שְׁמֽוֹ
  And I am Hashem your Lord who wrinkles the sea and makes its waves stir; the Lord of Hosts is His name

To paraphrase FDR, we ought to have

 “Nothing to Fear but Lack of Fear of G-d”.   

Dovid HaMelech in Psalm 27 (that we are now saying twice daily) asks:

לְדָוִד ה אוֹרִי וְיִשְׁעִי מִמִּי אִירָא ה'מָעוֹז חַיַּי מִמִּי אֶפְחָד
 “if Hashem is my Light and my stronghold,
from whom would I fear?

אִם תַּחֲנֶה עָלַי מַחֲנֶה לֹא יִירָא לִבִּי אִם תָּקוּם עָלַי מִלְחָמָה בְּזֹאת אֲנִי בוֹטֵחַ
 In Him and Him alone I place my trust

כִּי אָבִי וְאִמִּי עֲזָבוּנִי וַה' יַאַסְפֵנִי

When even my mother and father have been rendered powerless to help me, Hashem will gather me in . . . 

קַוֵּה אֶל ה' חֲזַק וְיַאֲמֵץ לִבֶּךָ וְקַוֵּה אֶל ה

Place your hope in Hashem, strengthen your heart and be courageous . . . place your hope in Hashem”.

The message is clear: a central tenet of Rosh Hashanah is for us to bolster our sense of Bitachon.  To know that wherever G-d places me is for the best, that He has plans for me; if I trust in Him and only Him, my life will have joy, contentment, meaning and purpose living in His plan.

I am not sure what life has yet in store for me.   We will hopefully be finally moving to Eretz Yisrael after Succos.   I do not know where and how life will lead us, but I am confident that this year helped me prepare for some yet-to-be-accomplished worthy things.  Certainly, on Rosh Hashana, when מעשה איש ופקודתו, the actions of Man and his mission are judged and determined, we must beseech Hashem for a life of not only physical health and well-being, but of meaning and purpose and accomplishment; knowing that:

הַשְׁלֵךְ עַל ה' יְהָבְךָ וְהוּא יְכַלְכְּלֶךָ לֹא יִתֵּן לְעוֹלָם מוֹט לַצַּדִּיק  
Cast your burden on Hashem, and He will bear you;
 He shall never allow a righteous man to falter
(Tehillim 55:23).

Our task is to get ready for His service; to do the best we can, and then get out of the driver’s seat and let Him drive the bus. 

Finally, I heard a beautiful insight from Rav Yaakov Glasser regarding the cloud on the mountain that could be seen on the way to the Akeida.  The Midrash relates that Avraham asked his companions, if they too saw the place that Hashem wants them to arrive at.   Yitzchak said yes, the others said no, and stayed behind.

 What did Avraham and Yitzchak actually see?   A cloud.   

The others saw the cloud as well, but they saw it as a gloomy impenetrable place to be avoided. Avraham and Yitzchak embraced the opportunity in the cloud, knowing that if  they entered there with confidence, Hashem would guide them to their ultimate goal. 

We are all at times faced by clouds, places which seem dark and gloomy.  We wonder why Hashem has placed them there; why He makes it difficult to see the way forward in His service, and so challenging to persevere though the obstacles that have been placed in our path.   But the lesson of the Akeida is that Hashem wants us to be willing to have Mesirut Nefesh (self-sacrifice), often in the form of proceeding to follow the quest for purpose in Life “no matter how hopeless, no matter how far”, and hope that the bright light of his Presence will make those clouds disperse, and eventually 

וְזָרְחָה לָכֶם יִרְאֵי שְׁמִי שֶׁמֶשׁ צְדָקָה וּמַרְפֵּא בִּכְנָפֶיהָ 
And the sun of mercy shall rise with healing in its wings  for you who fear My Name 

May we all merit to have a sweet and good year, filled with good health, purposeful meaning, and a contented sense of living in His presence.


Charles Kuttner said...

Beautiful. Wishing you a continuing refuah shelema, and I have added your father-in-law to my refuah list.

Dealing with cancer was--no puns intended--one of the greatest growth opportunities of my life. Every day becomes a day of gratitude and a "bonus day."

l'shana tova!

Anonymous said...

Eretz Yisrael is a good place to die. Or to be buried.

Or if you're rich enough, to actually live there.

If you don't mind living on stolen land and helping to perpetuate the oppression and impoverishment of the indigenous population.

I guess that's doing what Jews do best though, right?

YLO said...

It would be braver if you signed your comment "Anti Semite" than "Anonymous.