By Rabbi Jerry Seidler
Just the other day, I visited a cancer patient at the hospital where I work as a chaplain. I asked her how she was doing, and she told me she was frustrated. It was supposed to be an overnight stay after a simple surgery to remove a cancerous lung nodule. She was supposed to go home, but her oxygen level was too low, so she had to bear the discomfort of having to breathe with a nasal canula and stay at least another day. She was clearly down and not too awfully happy.
Welcome to my world. I’m a rabbi who works as a hospital chaplain. It is an environment chock-full of stress. But the biggest stressor is usually the unknown of a new beginning. New beginnings can be rather unsettling. Here, this patient must face the new beginning of her life post-operatively with cancer. No doubt, she found her circumstances unpleasant and disturbing, causing her to face her mortality, which is terrifying.
I listened to her lamentation. And then I scooched up in my chair and asked her to tell me what she might be thankful for. She gave me this incredulous look for a second, and then a smile came across her face. She pushed herself up in the bed and said, “Yeah, you know, I have a lot to be thankful for.” And she told me. She had undergone a procedure to remove a malignant nodule from one of her lungs. The cancer had been discovered early, the surgery was simple and so successful that she did not need chemotherapy, radiation or immunotherapy. Actually, all she needed to do was see her oncologist once a year for monitoring. She then told me about her family and all the things she was thankful for about them. And the same went for her job and her work family. She looked at me and said, “Rabbi, you are so right, I am thankful for so much. I’ll be all right. I am basically cancer free, and my future is good. So, yes, I am very thankful, and thank you, I feel so much better, I’ll stay here until I can go home, and it’ll be OK.”
Exactly! This exemplifies the underlying meaning of the first fruits ritual we find in the opening verses of Ki Tavo. The Israelites are confronting the stress of entering their homeland following slavery in Egypt and wandering in the desert. Crossing over into Israel was not going to be easy; it was going to involve literally battle and war (look at the Books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings). Talk about frightening. God, through Moses, instructs them to take some of their first fruits from the land once they settle, and bring them to the priests at the place where God has chosen to make the Holy Name reside. They are then to recite out loud the story of their descent into Egypt, their slavery and degradation, their divine liberation and redemption and their deliverance into the land. It is only once all this occurs that they can celebrate joyfully, that they can feel the peace of freedom.
Ki Tavo teaches us that the best way to deal with the stress of new beginnings is to focus on gratitude, to offer thanksgiving, just as my patient did. As we enter into a new year, may we reflect upon what we are thankful for. By doing so, we will notice the chein, chesed and rachamim in our lives, the grace, kindness and compassion, which will encourage us to overcome the stress of this new beginning.
Rabbi Jerry Seidler is a board certified chaplain with LifeBridge Health Sinai Hospital of Baltimore, and is a member of the Baltimore Board of Rabbis and the Association of Professional Chaplains.