IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Rabbi: Facing cancer and finding faith

In his book "Why Faith Matters," Rabbi David Wolpe looks at the way faith functions in the world, and shares his story about how religion sustained him during his wife's illness and his own two battles with cancer. An excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY books

In his book “Why Faith Matters,” David Wolpe, senior rabbi at the Sinai Temple of Los Angeles, Calif., offers a thought-provoking look at faith and history, faith and science, and the way faith functions in the world. It’s also a very personal exploration of Wolpe’s own journey away from and back to his own faith and how he embraced a career helping others. It was his faith that sustained Wolpe during his wife’s illness and his own two battles with cancer. An excerpt.

PrologueI stood by the hospital bed of a friend who was dying of cancer. Isaac wanted to know why he was sick, why he must die, why he must leave his children and grandchildren. I could tell him that it was part of God’s plan or confess to him that I did not know. Neither response seemed right. 

So instead, we exchanged stories about chemotherapy. My hair was just beginning to grow back after a bout with lymphoma; Isaac’s, wispy to start, was gone from the drugs that had targeted all the fast-growing cells in his body. They had done a thorough job on his hair but not on his cancer. 

We talked about the strange gratitude we felt for the medicinal poison as it coursed through our veins. There was a moment of solidarity, and then sadness returned. Battle stories are not nostalgic when they end in death. 

“But at least you understand,” Isaac said. It reminded me anew that in many ways my cancer was a gift; it gave more context to my compassion. He knew that I really did understand, that my family and I were not unscathed. Needles seemed forever to be dangling from my arm and I was always being shoved into metal tubes for scans and pictures and tests. Enduring the survival machines creates a kind of tribal solidarity.

“So,” he asked, “why did it happen to you?” 

Did I get cancer for a reason? Four years before my lymphoma I had undergone surgery for a brain tumor, thankfully benign. Five years before that, after the birth of our daughter, my wife’s cancer led to surgery that cured her but left her unable to bear more children. After each experience, people would ask why it happened and what I learned. Now someone was asking not out of curiosity or even spiritual hunger, but existential urgency. 

We looked at each other for a long time. I felt the familiar fear — that shiver inside that began with diagnosis and will never leave. I gathered myself and answered as best I could:

I know what it does not mean, I told Isaac. It is not a punishment. The calculus of reward and punishment in this world is surely more complex than sin equals cancer. In my darkest moments when I was most afraid I still did not believe God decreed I would get cancer because I had not lived up to expectations. Isaac, I said to him, the cancer is bad enough without making yourself feel guilty for it. 

One thing more is clear, I continued: The cancer is not only about you. Those who care for you suffer as well. The ripples do not end. Perhaps it is also about what you will bring to those who come to you for comfort. 

Facing our own mortality, the traditional roles had melted away. We were no longer clergy and layperson, younger man and older man. The first verse of the Book of Kings reads: “Now King David was old” (1 Kings 1:1). One chapter later, his condition has declined: “Now the days of David drew near that he should die” (1 Kings 2:1). Approaching death, he is no longer King David, just David. No one faces death as a king, a doctor, or a preacher. Death strips away pretense. There is no hiding behind titles and status. Isaac and I were two people who had undergone similar ailments.  One of us, for now, was in remission, and one of us would die before the other. And neither knew why.

He told me that he feared not for himself but for the fate of his family. How would they cope with losing him?  I remembered my own surprise a few years before as I was wheeled into surgery, at how little I feared death. I feared instead the consequences of my death — what it would mean to my wife and my daughter. It terrified me to leave them alone. 

Did he believe in another world? He was not sure, but he hoped. I ventured that everything a human being was — the hopes and dreams, the love and gifts — could not completely disappear. As the writer Vladimir Nabokov once said, life is such a remarkable surprise, why should death be less of a surprise? 

He smiled and in that smile was both sadness and a shared moment of hope. Maybe all the chemotherapy, the scans and shots, that kept us in this world were postponing the bliss of a life to come.

And yet. To die is to lose everything we know, all the wonders of this world and the people in it. To die is to leave so many stories unfinished and to miss the next act of the stories of others, those whom we know and whom we love. I felt the shiver anew as I looked into Isaac’s eyes and wondered, what else can I say to him, to myself?

One thought might promise some consolation: When I was sick it became clear to me how carefully others watched my reaction — would my faith help me at all, they wondered? Does a professional practice of faith offer some strength? In sickness we are not powerless. We still have the ability to teach. I learned this from my congregation.

I told this man, my friend Isaac, that his children and grandchildren were watching him. Here was a chance to teach his greatest lesson. They would remember much about him to be sure, but they would never forget how he died. His acceptance, his dignity, even his hope, could change their lives. 

Each week, I told him, I study scripture with a man who just turned ninety. He had often recounted what his mother said to him as she was dying: “My child, do not be afraid. It is only death, and it has happened to everyone who ever lived.” A long lifetime later, his mother’s words still bring him comfort and courage.

The two of us in the hospital room held hands, and agreed that if we could, we would pass from this life with words of love and hope for awakenings to come. Shortly afterward, Isaac passed away. His children speak of him with reverence for his life and for the way in which he faced death. As with all meetings of the spirit there was not one who gave and one who took; there were two who stood with each other and before God, and even in their sadness, felt blessed.

I remembered that encounter and others like it as I was writing this book. Such meetings are the deepest current of faith. Conversations I have had with people in troubled times are not marred by the narrow certainties that lead to viciousness and violence, or the smugness that often characterizes arguments against faith. 

This book was begun to present the case for faith. As with so many believers, I am disturbed by the charges of the new atheism and horrified by the cruelty of a brand of fanatical faith that breeds terrorists. I do not believe our choice is either an absence of God or an overzealous embrace of God. Every day I see and hear individuals trying to make sense of their lives, seeking the comfort of community and an assurance of the reality of God’s love. 

Excerpted from “Why Faith Matters” by David J. Wolpe. Copyright (c) 2008, reprinted with permission from HarperCollins. To read more, click .