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Rabbi David Wolpe

Rabbi David Wolpe

Posted: October 26, 2010 08:11 PM

Really, Again?

What's Your Reaction:

Really, again? After the surgery seven years ago for a benign brain tumor and chemo four years ago for lymphoma, I thought a breather was due. When I was told a hole had opened in the original craniotomy, and I had to have another brain surgery, my faith was not tested as much as my credulity. Really, again?

My thirteen year old daughter has been sorely tried. Shortly after she was born her mother had cancer. And her father has been a consistent frustration: "Why is it each time you get sick you lose your hair?" my daughter demanded, half kiddingly. Between the chemo and the brain surgery you would think I'd just go Vin Diesel on her and save the doctors the trouble for the next time.

Scarecrow like, my brain needed a patch. After the surgery I was affixed with a plaster bandage that covered my head. For four days I could have played an extra in the Brendan Fraser movies, except that the ancient Egyptian mummies were unencumbered by IV tubes and heart monitors. It was excruciatingly uncomfortable, made bearable only by the contribution it was making to ensuring that I would live. Both the doctors and nurses at UCLA's new Reagan medical center were exemplary, world class. They were caring, expert, solicitous; being there, nonetheless, was horrendous.

My veins, wizened from chemo, are the bane of phlebotomists across the country who poke at me with frustrated abandon; immobilization made sleep impossible, even if they hadn't woken me at regular intervals to measure what are peppily termed "your vitals;" at least the scar on my head was ready -- they could go in through the same incision as seven years before. But it had to be extended (don't ask), so in time for Halloween I had train tracks over the ear and down one shaven side of my head.

I hasten to point out that I otherwise look healthy, exercise regularly and haven't eaten meat in twenty years. There is only one explanation I can offer for this rapid fire series of crises. God is afraid I will run out of sermon material.

Each time I get sick I get a new sermon. After all, life crises are the clergy's bread and butter. So when the rhetorical well starts to run dry, God zaps me with a new ailment, as a sort of pedagogic prop. No doubt, if I stopped giving sermons, I'd be healthy forever.

Of course I cannot; it is in the blood. The desire to make meaning of experience does not end when experience is unpleasant -- quite the opposite. The Sabbath after I left the hospital was the story of Abraham's binding Isaac. I began to think about Isaac being under the knife. The situation was obviously radically different, but was it that unlike being under the scalpel? What was Isaac's reaction? Most of the commentators assume, quite naturally, that Isaac, under threat of being sacrificed by his own father, is devastated by the experience. But perhaps it is a sort of initiation; could his reaction be closer to what I experienced as the bandages were removed?

When I left the hospital four days after surgery I was surprised that I felt buoyant. Once again the ultimate crisis had been averted. I recalled Churchill's words after fighting in the Boer war: "It is exhilarating to be shot at without result." Unpleasant as the whole experience was, I had gone under the knife again, and emerged healthy and whole.

Perhaps Isaac knew that each of us must endure a test. We are not all Abraham, but we are all Isaac, all literally or figuratively under the knife, all tested. No one escapes fear, loss, sickness, sorrow. But we do control our reactions. Isaac's name is often translated "laughter" but "Yitzchak" literally means "he will laugh." Yet the Bible never tells us when Isaac does indeed laugh. As I walked out into the sunshine after being under the knife, I thought maybe, just maybe, Isaac laughed as came down the mountain.

Still I wonder if, years later as Isaac was going blind, he thought "really, again?"