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Is Cancer Random? (Guest Post – R’ Philip Moskowitz)

on Friday, January 23 2015. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

Guest Post – Rabbi Philip Moskowitz

Words simply cannot describe how touched and appreciative Arielle and I have been by the incredible outpouring of care and support you have shown us over the past few weeks. Knowing that the full force and love of our community are behind us and rooting us on gives us constant encouragement and strength. I am very much missing learning with you, regularly davening with you, being at Simchas and events with you and being as much of a presence in the shul as I am used to.   However, these past few weeks have afforded me the opportunity to do a lot of thinking, learning and reading, and at some later point I look forward to being able to more formally share with you some of the insights and inspiration that I have gleaned from this experience.

For now, I wanted to take just a moment to give you some updates and share a brief thought. I have just completed the first cycle of my treatment, and this Monday I will begin a new cycle of chemotherapy.   There are expectedly some side effects to the treatments and so when you see me you may notice some changes in my appearance.  I know how concerned you each are and how much you care. I once again thank you for treating us all as normally as possible when you see us.

I also want to take a moment to share a brief idea from this week’s Parsha that has been weighing on my mind these past few days.   This past week, an article appeared in the New York Times titled “Random Acts of Being Human.” The article is commenting on a recent study that appeared in the journal Science on the role that “bad luck” plays in getting cancer.   That study, which was reported upon widely, “caused an outbreak of despair, outrage and, ultimately, disbelief.”   The New York Times article attempts to reinforce the role that chance and luck play in our life, but argues counterintuitively that “for all our agonizing, it can be liberating to accept and even embrace the powerful role chance plays in the biology of life and death. Random variation, after all, is the engine of evolution.”

I agree with the author. In a strange sense, I have found having cancer to be an extremely liberating experience. But I wholeheartedly disagree with his reason. You see, when I was first diagnosed with cancer, I realized I could react in one of two ways: I could view myself as the unlucky victim of random mutations of cancer cells that could have struck anybody, but due to pure chance struck me. Or, upon learning about how unusual my form of cancer is, rather than feel the victim of randomness I could recognize and see the hand of the Almighty, the Omnipotent Creator who for whatever reason chose me to face this challenge. Don’t get me wrong – I am neither happy nor grateful to have to fight this battle. I do, however, find great comfort and strength in feeling the warm hand of Providence on my shoulder as I battle through my treatments. Knowing that enduring this experience is not random but was specifically meant for me by Hashem makes getting through it just a bit easier.

The Ramban, in a famous series of comments at the conclusion of our Parsha this week, writes that the very purpose of constantly remembering the exodus from Egypt is to always remember that Hashem isn’t a passive observer to our lives, but is rather an active and involved participant in our daily existence.   As the Ramban firmly writes, “an individual does not have a stake in the Torah of Moshe, our teacher, until he believes that our affairs and chance occurrences are all miraculous, that there is no ‘natural order’ or ‘routine working’ within the universe.”(Shmos 13:16)

Life isn’t a series of random occurrences. Rather, our lives are lived under the watchful eye of a loving and compassionate Creator. The ever-present narrative of Yetzias Mitrayim in Judaism is there to remind us that there is no happenstance and there is no coincidence. For the believing Jew, life is not random and we are not victims of chance.

Revisiting these comments by the Ramban this week and contrasting it with the sentiments in the New York Times article gives me pause.  Does this explain why I have cancer and another person does not?  Of course not.  But make no mistake about it.  It IS liberating and comforting to accept that while there are still things in this world that, no matter how hard he tries, mankind will simply not understand and grasp, our lives are still all under the watchful eye of the Almighty.   While it’s sometimes difficult to internalize, that faith in Hashem and the lack of control over certain elements of our existence can, in fact, be a liberating and strengthening realization.

These are obviously weighty and complex theological challenges that have troubled individuals far wiser than you and me throughout our history.   As Rav Soloveitchik writes at the beginning of Kol Dodi Dofek, “One of the deepest mysteries, troubling Judaism from the dawn of its existence, is the problem of suffering. At a propitious moment of Divine compassion, Moses, the master of all prophets, pleaded before the Lord of All to be enlightened as to the workings of this impenetrable phenomenon.”

I share these thoughts with you, not because I believe they are simple, but so that we can grapple with them together, and as a community grow through our individual and collective challenges. Please God, may we emerge from them with an even stronger Emunah (faith) in Hashem and a greater recognition of His ever-present role in our lives.

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