A Torah for Cancer

Dana Jennings

Torah is as much a part of my treatment for aggressive prostate cancer as are the drugs, the radiation, and the love and support of my family and friends. Along with my current daily dose of radiation, I always take at least a couple stiff shots of Torah, too. Medicine and science alone aren’t enough. They don’t treat the whole person.

Cancer has forced me, like Abraham in the book of Genesis, to leave the house of my father, to spurn comfort and security, to journey through an unknown wilderness. But that’s okay. To become the man I’m meant to be, I know this dark pilgrimage is necessary.

When facing illness, we Jews often prefer the solace, tears, and wisdom that seep from the Psalms, Job, and Ecclesiastes. But Genesis, with its births and rebirths, suits me these days. So many of our matriarchs and patriarchs — Abraham, Sarah, Jacob, and Joseph — are remade in the absolute hope of renewed covenants between themselves and God. Adonai doesn’t change your name — Abram to Abraham, Sarai to Sarah, Jacob to Israel — only to abandon you.

I, too, feel that I am being remade in hope.

Like dreamy Joseph, I know that fuller meaning beckons. I have not been cut open, radiated, and tried physically and spiritually so that I can merely survive. As Torah constantly reminds us, a human being is much more than the sigh of the lungs and the thump of the heart.

I am no Pollyanna. Yes, my cancer could kill me, and it is a bleak prism indeed through which to read Torah. Yet hope and light still simmer for me in its holy words. Since my diagnosis, I keep asking: What can this cancer teach me? I have learned that there is Torah. There is cancer. And there is a Torah for cancer.

Here are some of the lessons I have learned so far on this journey:

Shabbat Candles Can Fly

One Shabbat in late July—18 days post-op—I shuffled into a deep and inky dusk, my blue bathrobe flapping and snapping in the humid breeze as the crickets and cicadas hummed to accompany the coming night. Flurries of fireflies sparked and flickered, and I recited the blessing over those sudden, stunning Shabbat candles in flight: Baruch Ata Adonai, Eloheinu Melekh Ha-olam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav vitzivanu l’hadlik ner shel Shabbat. I was grateful to be home, grateful to be walking, grateful to be able to kindle the candle that is my soul.

Scar Lessons

I am rich in scars, each recalling a hard-earned lesson. There are the naive scars of boyhood, marks left behind by knives, acne, fish hooks, and sprinting into a lamppost chin first. My latest scar—a serpent of deep purple running from my navel to my pubic bone—marks the 25 surgical staples that held me together after surgery. More and more, I see it as a kind of tzitzit, permanent fringes on the garment of my body (and soul). To paraphrase Numbers 15: They are my fringe, and they do remind me to do all God’s commandments. I caress that reptilian skin and shake my head in wonder, knowing that despite many obstacles, I have been delivered to this day. I am being led out of the Egypt, the mitzrayim of my cancer. I belong to God.

We Are Both Abraham and Isaac 

“Some time afterward, God put Abraham to the test.” (Genesis 22:1)

Rereading the tale of the binding of Isaac, I’ve come to realize that anyone who has cancer, anyone who has any serious illness, is at once both Abraham and Isaac.

We are Abraham, ideally, when we learn we have cancer and try to transform it into a blessing, make it do a kind of teshuvah (an act of repentance). We say, in the example of Abraham, “Hineini—Here I am.” I hear it in the sacred words of Steveland Morris—Stevie Wonder to most of you—“Here I am, signed, sealed, delivered, I’m yours.” Cancer is not merely a test from God. It is of God, because all creation, the light and the darkness, flow from the Holy Breath. And anything that comes from God can be turned toward blessing.

But we are Isaac, too. Right now, I am bound by cancer and I wait on the altars of medicine. Before each radiation treatment, I lie flat on my back, the therapist binds my feet (so they don’t move), and I’m told to keep still, deathly still.

Sometimes I recall this midrash on the Psalms: “God desires not sacrifices, but hope.” I do not expect to die on the altar of prostate cancer. I trust and hope that God will provide the ram.

We Can Fight for Blessings

As Torah teaches, anything can be a gateway to the Holy. Think of Moses gazing at a mere bush as it blazed, then realizing, as it wasn’t consumed, that he had come upon a portal to the Holy. Or of Jacob wrestling a Divine being from nightfall till daybreak, refusing to let go until he received its blessing. Cancer is the dark angel I’m grappling with. Like Jacob, I am refusing to let go of the angel until I have wrung from it every last blessing.

Be a Shabbat Candle 

The love, prayers, and kindness of my family, my friends, and my community have given me the courage to write on the realities of having prostate cancer.

When I started posting about how it felt to have cancer on the “Well” blog of The New York Times, I hoped to help a few people. Nearly 1,600 mostly grateful people around the world have since posted messages, sent emails, and called. In speaking, I gave them permission to speak and, unwittingly, helped create a community for those of us touched by cancer: patients, family, and friends. It’s yet another blessing granted by my dark angel.

A few friends and acquaintances have also told me their cancer tales. I tell them mine, all of us understanding that honest speech heals—along with tears and hugs and the ability to look each other in the eye. Like Jacob, who was renamed Israel after his struggle, my name, too, has changed. I have become “cancer blogger,” “cancer confidant,” and, I hope, “cancer survivor.”

Each one of us can be a Shabbat candle, kindling the souls of others. As the sages say, our souls are candles of God. We are made for incandescence.

Cancer is an Ark 

Like the womb made of gopherwood and hope that carried Noah, his family, and the future of all creation forward, cancer is an ark. A new man has already emerged from this dark chrysalis. I am closer to my essential self. I love more fiercely. I have never been more thankful. I listen to others more closely than before. I can watch the chickadees huddle in the snowy brush and feel sustained by God. My faith has deepened.

Dana Jennings, his wife, and two sons belong to Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, New Jersey. To read his New York Times “Well” blog, visit www.nytimes.com/well.