Monday, September 25, 2006

Personal prayer and a New Year sermon

I made the following "personal prayer"--a tradition at some reform synagogues where congregation members speak about their personal experiences with religion--at Rosh Hashanah this weekend, at my family temple, Beth El in Sudbury, Mass.:
Two years ago, a few months before my twenty-fifth birthday, I noticed a lump in one of my testicles, which turned out to be cancer. I had an easier treatment than most others who go through cancer, but it still involved surgery and weeks of unpleasant radiation. Luckily I had the support of friends and family, and a job that provided health insurance. Shortly after I turned twenty-five, I had a cautious but clean bill of health.

Several times since that ordeal, friends have asked me what wisdom I gained by facing a threat to my life and overcoming it. I haven't known what to tell them. It didn't feel like I gained insight, just that I was scared and propelled along by events beyond my control.

I want to tell them I have figured something out. I want to be able to give something back in exchange for their support. And shouldn't I have learned something? After all, in another age or another place today, I would likely have died. Shouldn't I cherish my life as a second chance, emerge with perspective and know how to live life to its fullest? Besides, I threw up just about every day for a month; I think I deserve something in return.

At times, I can't help but wonder if someone else would be doing more with this second chance. But when I look back over the choices I've made in the last two years, I do see some brave ones. A year ago, I left a comfortable job to go and work for a year in former Soviet Georgia. That wasn't an easy move to make. And I'm trying now to find a job that's what I really want to do, not just a stopgap. That's not easy either.

It doesn't seem to me that I've made these decisions just because I'm aware of the precariousness of my own life. But maybe there's something more subtle at work. My parents tell me that only a generation ago, no one would speak openly about a friend or family member having cancer. I imagine that part of the reason was people didn't like to remind each other of their own mortality.

Maybe that's why I feel the impulse to report back good news about life, at least my life. I know I'm not duty-bound to do that. But when I think about it, it's not a bad job to be stuck with. Why not try?

So here are some things that have been getting clearer to me, whether it's because of cancer or living abroad or just getting older.

No one lives life to its fullest every day, whatever that means. It's enough just to remind ourselves of that idea now and then. Revelation might be real, but it grows quietly and slowly. Experiences we've all but forgotten mature in the background and come in handy when relevant. If people do communicate it to each other, it's not as a sudden unveiling but by working in whatever perspective we've built up into our daily interactions.

Jacob's ladder works for me as a metaphor for this: there's a lot of rungs. I didn't wake up suddenly at the top. But being asked if I did at least made me realize I'd already climbed a few of them.
After the service, lots of other congregants came over and introduced themselves, and quite a few of them worked in mention of their eligible bachelorette daughters. I have to clue my little brother in: the temple is a goldmine!

In a sermon, our rabbi told of a hermit who lived in the hills in Minnesota, who farmed all day and played his violin in the evening. It got so out of tune over the years that he had to stop, and in desperation he walked miles to a post office and mailed a letter to the local NPR station asking them for help. One Sunday, during the news, the newscaster announced that they were going to help him tune his violin, and played an A on the air. Point? The shofar, the ram's horn that is sounded during the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, is like that A: it is a call to us to reset our grudges and expectations, to release our preoccupations and come back into tune.