Thursday, January 29, 2009

My D'var Torah

For those of you who missed it, count your blessings. Here's the D'var Torah from January 31 at Beth Jacob. You also missed an amazing Amy Markon cake. Ha Ha.

I know I told Rabbi Allen I would give a d’var torah, but I’m really here to talk about the Kiddush. Partly because I’m hungry and partly because like to get ahead of myself.

Kiddush today is being sponsored by my family is on the occasion of an anniversary I hope none you ever has to celebrate. Exactly 1 year ago today, I was diagnosed with colon cancer. This makes me a 1-year cancer survivor. After 11 months of treatment, 8 months of remission, a January of recovery, and a year of unbelievable support from this and other communities, we wanted to express our gratitude by providing you all with… bagels and tuna fish.

I thought about giving a re-cap of my cancer experiences, but that would be redundant for the many of you who faithfully read my caring bridge blog. I thought about presenting a pithy list of the “ten things I have learned in the past year,” but 8 out of the 10 are not appropriate to discuss in public, and the other two have to do with my dentist and vacuum cleaners. Not exactly edge of your seat drash material.

So I am left with the Torah, after all. And Parashat Bo. And how it relates to cancer… On occasion over the past year I have indeed felt as Pharoah must have felt, visited by plague after plague. And now I feel like I have been freed—I have made my own personal exodus. But there’s more.

I have often wondered 2 things about this Parasha. Question number one is: Why on earth did G-d harden Pharoah’s heart—make him change his mind after he had already said yes to Moshe?

Question number 2 is: Why are we talking about the Exodus today and then celebrating the Exodus in the Spring?

And now I think I have answers that satisfy me, and they actually relate colon cancer. Sort of.

I will start with Question 2, just because I like to be contrary.

I specifically remember sitting in this shul on Rosh Hashana a few years ago, thinking, “oy, here we go, another year, another Pesach to kasher for.” You think I am kidding, I am not. But I don’t think we read about the Exodus today to induce panic 4 months in advance. I think there is no inappropriate time to think about the miracles that happen to us, and I think that this is a great way to remember that.

I looked to our ancient sources for some insight. I studied Rambam, Rashi, and I found a really telling parallel to this idea from the famous Torah scholar, Dr. Seuss. In his tractate on Sleep, he gives us the wonderful example of the Chippendale Muff, who bites his tail before falling asleep:

Which he does every night before shutting his eyes.
Such nipping sounds silly. But really, it’s wise.
He has no alarm clock. So this is the way
He makes sure that he’ll wake at the right time of day.
His tail is so long, he won’t feel any pain
‘Til the nip makes the trip and gets up to his brain.
In exactly eight hours, the Chippendale Mupp
Will, at last, feel the bite and yell “Ouch!” and wake up.

Are we biting our tails by reading Bo? And yelling “ouch” at Pesach? No, but we do yell “thanks!” at Pesach… By reading about the Exodus now, we are preparing ourselves to wake up at a different time. Reminding ourselves that there’s no wrong time to reflect on slavery and redemption, miracles, the future, or the past, for that matter…

I cannot imagine a more potent “bite on the tail” than colon cancer… I certainly thought about it throughout the year after the initial “bite,” and I’m sure I will continue to think about it and how it affects my life as I continue living without it. I will not only think about my cancer experience only on January 31 each year. To be grateful for my health tomorrow, and on August 12, and March 15 seems highly appropriate. To be thankful for the miracles of remission, medical science, health and community every day would be a mitzvah. There is no wrong time for recognition and celebration of miracles. An anniversary is simply a “bite on the tail,” to remind us to be appreciative at other times as well.

I would like to quote another Torah Scholar, from the tractate Caring Bridge, Frances Fischer wrote on June 3: It’s true, today is our wedding anniversary. Only we sort of forgot, so we’re putting off any sort of big hoo hah until I feel better. Maybe when we can both go out to dinner and actually enjoy the food. We’ve celebrated for 18 years, and we’re still celebrating—don’t need a particular day for that. We’re just happy to both be alive together. We’ve agreed that given the choice, with 20/20 hindsight, we’d do it again. Even with cancer!

Wow, we’re pretty smart.

I would like to encourage you to take the opportunity of my “cancerversary” today to be a bite on the tail for you to take action for your own health, for your own happiness. If your 50th birthday is months off, listen to me today and call Monday to schedule your colonoscopy. Believe me, you will want an early morning appointment, and they fill up quickly! If you have health concerns that you are “poo poo-ing,” because you are sure they are nothing, listen to me today and go to your doctor and make sure they really are nothing.

And let me encourage you today to take care of yourselves and your families on February 9, July 22, and November 16. To celebrate joyous anniversaries on Augst 12, April 4, and October 18. To celebrate miracles today, to bite yourself on the tail, and to wake up and remember the miracles throughout the year.
And now on to Question #1, regarding the miracle of the Exodus: Why in heaven’s name would G-d harden Pharoah’s heart? If Pharoah was really ready to let us go, why would G-d step in and say no? What is up with keeping us enslaved through ten plagues? That just sounds mean!

Here’s G-d’s side of the story: "Go again to the Pharaoh for I have hardened his heart so I may display My signs to the people. It is these signs which will enable you and the generations after you to recognize Me as your God. This is the story parents will pass down to their children and their children's children. I will be known as the God who brought you out of the land of Egypt."

Okay, G-d hardened his heart to enable the whole Exodus. But what if G-d hadn’t hardened his heart? Might we still have had all the miracles?

If you think about it, Pharoah was really not all that nice in the first place. He did not need a lot of help from G-d to be part of the Axis of Evil. Let’s assume for a minute G-d hadn’t gotten involved: Moshe goes to Pharoah, asks him to “let my people go,” he thinks it’s a good plan, Moshe leaves, Pharoah thinks better of it, and says no. That seems reasonable. Slaves are convenient! Indoor plumbing is also convenient! Imagine Moshe asking you to “let my copper piping go.” You might think it’s a salient argument, or more likely, you might think Moshe is a nutcase and just dismiss him with a “sure, whatever.” Then after he leaves you install a security system to make sure nobody is messing with your plumbing and you can still flush (see? A colon cancer connection!)

Same with Pharoah and the slaves. While Moshe’s argument may have spoken to him in the moment, it seems completely reasonable that he would have simply changed his mind and decided to keep the slaves after all, with no involvement from G-d. Even after all the plagues, he could have assumed the next one couldn’t be worse… So why did G-d have to step in and harden his heart?

Perhaps G-d was not really picking on Pharoah. Well, yes, with the plagues, he certainly was singled out. But in terms of heart-hardening, at the risk of sounding heretical here on the bimah, perhaps G-d is simply in the business of heart-hardening. Of hardening all of our hearts.

And G-d would be smart to do so. If we had only soft mushy hearts, we would be in a constant state of sorrow when observing our world, sometimes when observing our own families. We would give so much tzedaka when we thought about starving children, homeless adults, battered women, epidemics… that we would use all our resources and end up needing tzedaka ourselves! We would not be able to function day to day, so deeply would we feel the emotional and physical wounds of others. We would fall apart completely when given a cancer diagnosis and not have the fortitude to carry on and do what is necessary. To protect us from this, G-d gives us the ability to stand back, to have perspective, to have sechel—G-d hardens our hearts.
The trick that Pharoah missed is to find the balance. Pharoah allowed the heart hardening to take over, he was unable to rise above it.

But we are different. We, all of us, to a person, have risen above it. We are compassionate, generous, we take care of ourselves, we think of others, we are strong and do what needs to be done.

That this community has broken through the hardness has been very apparent to my family over the past year. We were helped in so many ways, by so many people, when it might have been easier to have a hard heart and say no and stay home and eat bon bons. Or do your homework, or your taxes, or your laundry. But you came and did MY laundry, you made us meals, you drove me to radiation, to chemo, you visited in the hospital, you asked others to help, you wrote me cheery notes, you visited me at home, you took care of my children… the list is endless.

And you didn’t just do this for us. You have helped so many other families as well. Parker Palmer referred to this as “abundance” recently on NPR’s Speaking of Faith: “The constant daily act of reweaving community, of mutual aid, … mutual assistance… is itself the abundance that we seek.” I love the metaphor of “reweaving community,” because it seems that that is exactly what this community does so well. I don’t have family here, many of us don’t. But we have re-weaved, and now we have you, a new kind of family.

And a new kind of abundance.

We would not have asked, in a million years, to be afflicted with what 2008 provided for us. And I will not stand here and tell you that there are gifts that come with the horror of cancer, that I am in any way grateful for the experience.
But I will tell you that there are gifts that come with being in a re-woven community, a community of people who know how to soften their hardened hearts. And I am grateful for that.

And I will tell you that I am grateful to you, even if you did not do my laundry, write me a note, make us soup, or drive me… I am grateful to you even if I do not know you. Because, despite the fact that God has hardened your heart too, you are part of this community, and you have, or you will, do it for someone else. And that is how we will remain strongly woven together in this generation, and for future generations

So please, not now, but when released by Rabbi Allen, go and enjoy the Kiddush. As a wonderfully woven community. And let us all celebrate anniversaries that we forgot about and anniversaries that are months off.


  1. Again, beautiful. And I am your first stalker,oops, I mean "follower".

  2. WOW! This was great. My only regret is that I did not see this before our weekly Torah study at Temple Israel of Hollywood. I will have to wait until next year, when I will dedicate the study session to your second year of remission and quote you during our discussion of hardened and softened hearts. Our group has been at it 9 times, and you have a new a wonderful perspective. I heard you voice and saw your face as I read your words. Thank you for your teaching.

    Forever an admirerer,

  3. Frances, how fun to have you have a blog! I love reading people's blogs! If you have time, check out mine, and I will try to find you on facebook too!!