By Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt
Riverdale Jewish Center
Delivered at a recent RCCS dinner
One day, about three years ago, our son — just having begun a very promising, sought-after summer internship — was feeling nauseated, having trouble holding down his food. We took him to wonderful doctors. One said he was taking too much Tylenol; maybe it irritated his esophagus. We took him to another one, a gastroenterologist, who said, “It could be ulcers.” (At that point, nobody thought of cancer). “Oy vey, ulcers! How terrible! Our child should have ulcers!”
Nothing could have prepared us for the news that soon followed. I remember exactly where I was standing in the kitchen, on that Friday afternoon when my wife called from the hospital. They had run some further tests; they had found a growth in his abdomen.
Our entire world went dizzy. And suddenly, that word, that awful word that all of us hold at bay, had come to live in our house. I won’t burden you with all of the gory details: that my son didn’t taste a bite of food for months and months save for nourishment from a bag; that he suffered from nausea that defied all medications. We plodded through an entire year in that murky world.
I remember much that was horrible from that year, pain that we couldn’t ameliorate. Much fear. Much anger. The world was conducting business as usual, and my poor son was skeletal and bald and frightened all the time.
However, that’s not really what I, principally, remember. I remember the feeling that we were traveling through a dark forest upon a chariot of light. I remember the people, those extraordinary doctors at Memorial/Sloan-Kettering, the nurses–everyone associated with that blessed institution. But also, the myriad ways in which the people of our community came to our aid.
[Just a tip for any of you, if someone you know is diagnosed with a serious illness. If you call them and say, “If you need anything, you know we’re here for you; just tell us”, understand that you have just recited a beracha levatolah (a blessing in vain). No one’s going to call you and say, “Here’s what I need.”] The wonder was that people with intuitive compassion found needs that we didn’t even imagine, found our cavities and filled them: from a family that decided to simply take care of the car service to the hospital… to the family that learned that my son liked apple pie; even when their own children were being married and their family was attending sheva brachos, they never missed an erev Shabbos. For almost a solid year, without fail, there was always an apple pie. When my son was feeling better, just before Pesach, I asked them to postpone the next pie delivery-until his aufruf (the Shabbat before his wedding), with G-d’s help.
The obligation to draw up the list of our countless debts of gratitude, taught me a very important lesson: cancer is not a single makko (plague). It is not one hard blow. It is usually a series, a cluster of pains, of changes in one’s assumed routine that come to visit your life.
But at the same time, it is the opening of many gates of opportunity. And the realization that our world is full of extraordinary people who will walk with you through each of those gates.
I have always wondered about the three Talmudic sages in the Passover Haggada, each of whom seems intent to multiply the plagues that befell the Egyptians, climaxing with Rabbi Akiva and his grand total of 250. All the people in the world think there were 10 plagues and then Rabbi Akiva ratchets up the number to 250. What kind of an exercise is this, and why is its message on a night when we celebrate redemption? Well, it’s very simple. It is a response to a verse in the book of Exodus (Shemos), when the Almighty announces He is, after all, Israel’s chief healer. He promises us kol hamachalot asher samti b’Mitzrayim lo asim alecho; “All the afflictions that I placed upon the Egyptians, I shall not place upon thee”, Ani Hashem rofecha. “I am the L-rd who is your healer”. By multiplying the number of the plagues, we are expanding our concept of how many different ways the Divine Providence has of watching over us, how multivalent is His promise to be the physician by our bedside.
And having passed through this dark forest of illness, we realize that HaKadosh Baruch Hu, the great healer, delegates this cluster of healing opportunities to many people. And that he needs them all to enable any one patient, any one family, to get through the forest. This is an important principal to keep in mind when one evaluates the work of RCCS, the Rofeh Cholim Cancer Society.
One of my obligations as a Rabbi is to act as a conduit for the monies of charity and philanthropy that flow through a community. And each day, some request comes through, whether it’s for a school or for an underprivileged child or for an institution publishing important works of scholarship. The Rabbi comes to realize that you can only call upon each person so many times, that the well is finite. The charities that become your true heroes are those that meet two criteria. The first, that they have a clearly identified mission. They do not claim to be the answer to all the world’s ills. They are just going to do one important thing with a degree of focus and intelligence that no one else has ever applied in that area. The second criterion is that they will take that dollar of charity and they will use it to leverage serious resources, more than any community could possibly hope to afford.
It is impossible for our community, the Jewish community, to undertake the costs of even a small fraction of our cancer cases, some of whom are destitute and some of whom are rendered destitute by the disease. (I have to tell you that had I not had a remarkable congregation that was ready to completely change its entire insurance structure, then I, too, would be the pauper. But that would have been part of the price to save the life of my son, a handsome, strapping, threat-on-a-basketball-court, young man.)
And we had excellent insurance by the usual standard, except they didn’t cover the hospital where my son needed to be. Save for the miracle of my wonderful congregation, I would have been the classic RCCS client. So, you see, RCCS has undertaken a mission not only of compassion, not only of generosity, but of intelligence. They have saved our community countless millions of dollars. They have brought benefits far beyond what any donor, even the wealthiest, could possibly hope to bring to such a large group of patients. RCCS has subsidized some two thousand insurance policies over the past 13 years, with an average payment per service of $20 for every one dollar invested.
And as I said, RCCS is not just a mind and not just a business mind. It’s also a heart. And this is reflected in the fact, that having mastered this particular niche in the market, having learned how to give people what they really need–continuity of insurance coverage–they just couldn’t resist extending themselves to open a few more of the gates. They couldn’t help but find partners who would help families of modest means with the co-pays and deductibles, which, although relative to the cost of medical service, are small, if you begin with a modest income, even these payments can be a bludgeoning experience. They couldn’t help becoming a funnel for tuition scholarship, help for the children who are watching their parents pass through that dark forest called cancer. They couldn’t help going into hospitals to be patient advocates because cancer doesn’t give a diagnostic before it strikes and take only sophisticated patients who know how to research their disease and call upon the best of medical practice with insistence. Sometimes it just attacks simple people. And without an advocate, the system just doesn’t work the same way. And as if to manifest their role as a chariot of light, RCCS has even taken on one of the most deeply rooted taboos of our community — the desire not to know, the desire not to use the word cancer. They have educated and taught people to look for the signs of cancer and say the word — cancer, cancer, cancer — until it ceases to paralyze you from saving those you love. And they’ve taught people things to look out for which would lead to early diagnoses.
My dear friends, Hakadosh Baruch Hu said, Ani Hashem Rofecha, “I am the L-rd who will heal you”. And in that promise, there are 250, or perhaps 250 million opportunities, to be part of the chariot of light. If you have that capacity, if you have the capacity to help RCCS, light it up! And we’ll beat the dark forest together.
RCCS, a recognized 501(c)3 organization, provides an array of services for cancer-stricken patients in need; primary among them is the subsidizing of health insurance premiums, enabling them to obtain the best possible medical care. www.rccscancer.org