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The Uninvited Guest

November 3, 2010 | by Raphael Dovid Hyman

I was in excellent physical condition. I never smoked. How could I have lung cancer?

No one was more surprised than I when the oncologist told my wife and me the news that tests revealed cancer in my lung that spread to my bones. We were stunned. At 54, I was in excellent physical condition. I never smoked, have watched my weight and have exercised regularly for years.

My first response was disbelief. Surely my tests must have been mixed up with someone else’s. But the reality of the situation quickly sank in, and I realized that the course of my life was not in my hands, but in the hands of God. We cried several times on the way home and had to stop the car to regain composure. All I could think of was, What am I supposed to learn from this? What must I do with the time I have left? How much time do I have? I wasn’t thinking, Why me? or This isn’t fair. I believed that God had a message for me.

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Not having been raised in a religious home, I was in my mid-twenties when I began to learn about Judaism. It was my wife’s interest that initiated our journey, and I went along kicking and screaming. I had no desire to give up a perfectly good day of the week that I had always enjoyed for recreation, shopping and other activities. And the idea of not eating whatever struck my fancy seemed ludicrous.

Daily prayers and other commandments were alien concepts to me. But we worked with a very patient rabbi who had the wisdom to allow me the time and space I needed to come to my own conclusions. And the more I asked, the more I explored, the more I embraced Torah Judaism. It was Winston Churchill who once said that, “Every once in awhile, a man stumbles upon the truth — but most pick themselves up, dust themselves off and continue along their way as if nothing happened.”

For those who confront the truth, the choice comes down to living the rest of your life as though you saw nothing or aligning with the truth. I realized I could no longer live like I had in the past. Facing the truth involves change, no matter how uncomfortable or where it may lead you.

Our journey included a year learning in Israel, ongoing classes, sending all of our girls to day school, Bais Yaakov high school, camp and seminary. I have been learning Torah daily for a number of years, my wife and I have been involved with many shul and community projects. And the underlying message in our home (as well as outside) is that God is in charge and observing the commandments is for our benefit and joy.

Needless to say, the news of my cancer was an unexpected turn of events and I initially struggled with the joy part. But I realized that the only thing I could control was my attitude toward the situation, and I asked God for the strength to deal with it, knowing that He doesn’t give us tests we cannot pass. Perhaps easier said than done. The thought of leaving my eishet chayil, my beloved wife, of not seeing all my children married or knowing my grandchildren, God forbid, was almost too daunting.

I kept thinking of the frightening statistics that the doctor rattled off in his office. As we collected our wits, we began to consider the bigger picture and looked for grains of hope. Prayer, faith and trust in God were as much in the prescription for recovery as the medications, treatments and tests that would quickly become part of my regimen.

Pain is a fact of life; how we deal with it is a matter of choice.

After the initial shock, my first test was to share the difficult news with my mother. We went to her home and I said, “Mom, I have something unpleasant to say — I have cancer.” Her reaction was as if the rug had been pulled from under her. I quickly spoke up and said, “We have the best medical team to help us and we know that with God's help, we’re going to see this through.”

The expression on my mother’s face turned from sheer fright to calm, as she took her cue from us, that we were confident in our path and that we had complete trust. Likewise, our children were comforted to see that their parents were facing this head-on, and they in turn remained as upbeat as they could. Pain is a fact of life; how we deal with it is a matter of choice.

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The news of my condition spread quickly through the community, and the outpour of kindness was overwhelming as well as humbling. We received countless calls and emails from everywhere — people who had been guests at our Shabbos table from all over, including Mexico, Canada and Australia. Friends from Israel. A community recital of Psalms was quickly organized and the shul was packed with people, many of whom I had not seen in years. My eyes filled with tears as so many came up to me afterwards with wishes for my complete healing. In order to garner spiritual merit for my complete recovery, a number of community-wide programs have been launched.

A rabbi and longtime friend made a special visit from across the country. And another rabbi has taken it upon himself to learn with me for a few minutes by phone every day. There have been so many other acts of kindness by dear friends and total strangers who feel another’s pain.

A woman in the community sends me a get well card every day, along with goodies for our family. Our next door neighbors have always been like family—and opened their home to our visiting children. They have us for Shabbos meals and do countless acts of kindness for us. I don’t know how I came to merit all this – I am a simple person with no great credentials other than I have always tried to uplift people, Jew and gentile alike.

While I wouldn’t have chosen this test, I continuously look for the silver lining. I remember asking my wife, “Can you imagine going through this without a solid belief in God and the support of a community?” Now more than ever, we appreciate the extraordinary foundation that Judaism provides us and I shudder at the thought of how I would have dealt with my condition without it. Instead of accepting the challenge for what it really is I would have probably responded with anger, blame, and bitterness.

When my wife was seriously ill a few years ago, one of our daughters said, “We will all grow from this.” Sure enough, we did. And we will undoubtedly grow from our present situation. Only God knows for certain what my fate will be. In the meantime, we have the power of prayer, teshuva and tzedakah to influence Him.

As one friend said, “Pray like it all depends on God, and work on getting better like it all depends on you.” Amen.

Please pray for the speedy recovery of Raphael Dovid Feivel ben Rivkah.

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