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A Question About Learning, an Answer About Living

March 18, 2001|ELIJAH J. SCHOCHET | Elijah "Eli" J. Schochet is rabbi emeritus of Shomrei Torah Synagogue in West Hills

Aaaah! The allure of retirement!

Balmy far-off tropical beaches and exotic waterfalls.

Time to leisurely peruse over 101 unread books.

Time to take the grandchildren to Kings hockey games at Staples Center.

The allure of retirement was irresistible, and so I retired after 39 years in the rabbinate.

Enter reality!

The oncologist was compassionate but firm: "I hate to say this, Rabbi, but you have a large mass in your abdomen. It is cancer--non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. We have to start you on chemotherapy immediately."

This was decidedly not the sort of retirement I had looked forward to savoring.

Many years ago, I had a rabbi / teacher who would frequently pose the question, "Nu, so tell me, what have you learned from your experience?"

It was a discomforting question to consider, particularly since it was invariably raised in connection with negative experiences, and so I found myself resisting any consideration of it.

However, this question has recently come to echo and reecho persistently in my mind with painful specificity . . . . "What have I learned from my cancer? What has cancer taught me?"

Cancer has taught me a number of things. Things embarrassingly simple, even trite, to try to recount.

Cancer has taught me a newfound appreciation for the simple, elemental pleasures of life. Who needs far-away tropical beaches? The shore at Port Hueneme is just fine. Exotic waterfalls? Exuberant grandchildren jumping in a swimming pool can create a cascade of water just as impressive as Yosemite's finest falls. Even watering one's front lawn is no longer a chore. It is truly a delight, particularly when contrasted with weeks spent lying indoors in a hospital bed.

Cancer has taught me a newfound appreciation for the blessing attendant upon navigating the "slow lane" of life. The normal irritations and interruptions impacting upon one's schedule no longer seem so bothersome. The wise sage of the Book of Ecclesiastes phrased it aptly; "The race is not to the swift." How true! Indeed it is the slower finishers who seem to experience more and enjoy more of life. Therefore they may well be the true winners of the race.

Cancer has taught me to have a deep and abiding respect for the doctors and nurses of the oncology wards, not "just" for their remarkable skills but for their unfailing good spirits and encouraging smiles. I once wondered why anyone would choose oncology as a specialty. Why indeed? Perhaps precisely because of the opportunity afforded one to give to those most desperately in need of receiving.


Early in my career as a rabbi, I visited a member of my synagogue in a local hospital. He greeted me with a declaration and with a question: "Guess what, Rabbi. I've got the 'Big C.' My question is whether I am going to die storming in a rage into the night or whether I will surrender and die in peace. Tell me, which should it be?"

However ineptly, I tried to frame a dual answer for him, telling him that it is all right to be angry. It is perfectly natural to feel anger. However, at the same time (and here I paraphrased a Talmudic teaching) whereas a child enters the world with clenched fists as if striving to possess all, the elderly depart this earth with limp open hands, fully cognizant of the fact that there are no pockets in shrouds. So ideally one should strive to die at peace, at peace with life and if possible with death itself. Indeed, in his essay, "Death as Homecoming," Abraham Joshua Heschel refers to death as an "arrival," a "celebration," as "entering a beginning," even declaring that "for a pious man it is a privilege to die."

What will be my own prognosis? After encountering the 20th century miracles of medicine--chemotherapy, stem-cell transplantation and radiation--will my health now permit me to savor the fantasies of retirement that I once envisioned? (Fantasy, shmantasy, let me just savor the familiar and mundane joys of routine life.) Or will the verdict be otherwise?

I cannot possibly know, but I do resolve to live more appreciatively, leisurely and givingly than ever before until the arrival, hopefully delayed, of the ultimate "homecoming" that awaits us all.

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