I celebrated quietly this week. On Monday, I crossed the halfway mark. I completed the fifteenth radiation treatment, leaving only thirteen more. By tomorrow, I’ll be eighteen done and ten to go. That’s nothing, right? Even though each day of radiation and chemotherapy makes me increasingly fatigued, I can do ten of anything . . . except, perhaps, chin ups.
The days and hours from last March until two weeks from tomorrow feel like the longest, slowest period of time in my life. It also feels like it has gone speeding by. I want to ask: how did I get here?
I have had so many blessings along the way: doctors who are healers, compassionate nurses, the newest chemotherapy and technology protocols, health insurance and a loving, understanding workplace. (I think often of ill people without any of these essential pieces in place.)
My family, friends, and OJC community have provided unstinting support.
My self-care practices of healthy eating, yoga, walking, journaling, and meditation have supported and eased the regimen of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.
But nothing has been as powerful in my healing process as my faith in God.
Make no mistake: I am not saying that the seeming success of my course of treatment and potentially complete healing are the result of my faith. God did not make me sick and God is not healing me.
I am saying that my optimism, positive energy, gratitude and sense of blessing are all a result of my belief in God and that God cares about me.
My spiritual life does not remove moments of fear and despair, but does give me the ability to cope.
Spirituality allows me to experience transcendent meaning in this precious life. For me, it is expressed through my relationship with God. For you, it might be about nature, family, or community. – whatever beliefs and values give you a sense of meaning and purpose in life. When we attend to these beliefs, we feel a deep sense of belonging to something greater than we are.
For me, my spirituality translates into an unshakable trust that God has plans for me. This idea has carried me through my treatment for cancer. And it will carry me through the months and years ahead from scan to scan.
Praised are you, Adonai my God, Who has helped me feel safe and free from undue suffering. Thank you, God for helping me find moments of joy in the midst of this time of challenge. Amen.
Every year, by the time I finish reading the name of the book by Rabbi Alan Lew z”l, I wonder if I actually need to open the cover. The title says it all: This is real and you are completely unprepared. I read Rabbi Lew’s book about the Days of Awe as spiritual transformation every August.
I dedicate myself to preparation for Rosh Hashanah during the Hebrew month of Elul, the month preceding the new year. (By preparation, I do not actually mean rabbinic preparation though I must, of course, do that too: writing sermons, finding new inspirations for the service, figuring out how to welcome all the people who come to the doors of the synagogue for services and programs.)
When I write “preparation for the New Year,” I mean Cheshbon Hanefesh, taking an accounting of my soul.
I take the work seriously every year.
This year, I take it even more seriously.
“In the visible world, we live out our routine and sometimes messy lives. We have jobs, families, and houses. Our lives seem quite ordinary and undramatic. It is only beneath the surface of this world that the real and unseen drama of our lives is unfolding… only there that the horn sounds 100 times, that the gate between heaven and earth opens and the great books of life and death open as well. It is there that the court is convened, that we rehearse our own death, that the gate closes again, and that we finally come home…”
How do I prepare? How do I go below the surface of my ordinary life to do the work that Rabbi Lew so eloquently describes? I pray. I make lists of what I am proud of and what I need to improve. I apologize with full heart to anyone I might have harmed.
Most of all, I get very quiet. Only by turning off the noise of the world can I go below the surface.
This year, because of my cancer diagnosis and my chemotherapy regimen, I have less energy for this work. Yet the work that I am able to do feels more poignant and so much more real.
I am more capable of focusing on what is important. I am kinder to myself, recognizing moments where I push myself beyond reasonable effort and calling a halt to such perfectionism. Because I am tired more often, I am quiet more often. It is amazing what my soul has to say when I stop and listen.
When I greet my community this year at services for Rosh Hashanah, I intend to be shining.
I am so grateful for the strength and health that I do have.
I am blessed by wise and compassionate physicians and nurses.
I am held by family, friends and community.
I have so many plans for the future, and this forward focus fuels my healing. I am filled with creativity and spiritual energy, almost as if God is saying to me, “Have no fear. I have many more plans for you.”
For the first time in my life during the month of Elul, I am indeed not entirely unprepared.
I encourage all of you not to wait for a crisis to find yourself able to truly prepare for a new year. Feel the urgency as this year comes to a close and a bright new year awaits you.
L’Shana Tova Tikateivu. May you be written for a good new year.
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
I like schedules. I like lists. A lot. I like to fill my oversized Daytimer with schedules and lists, checking the items off as I complete them. I keep track of my phone calls, visits, classes, meetings and sermon preparation. At the end of each day, I look with satisfaction at my to-do list to measure all that I have done. I feel gratified as each day comes to a close and I imagine accomplishing, in incremental steps, my mission – the building up and support of my OJC community in the context of the Jewish world and the world-at-large.
A life of doing is a Jewish way. Just consider what the rabbis say in Ethics of the Fathers: “The day is short, the task is great…and the Master insistent!” (Pirkei Avot 2:20)
A life of doing is my way of living.
And so it was, until it wasn’t.
These months of illness have catapulted me right out of the life of doing. My calendar is empty except for doctor appointments and treatments. My to-do list includes taking a walk and making a phone call, on a good day.
What I have learned is the benefit of a life of being.
I do not mean being sick in my bed.
I mean those days when I am well enough to go out and walk in God‘s world or re-enter my OJC world filled with gratitude.
Only in a state of being can I truly appreciate the wonders of God’s world and the preciousness of our community.
One month ago, our butterfly bush was cut down to its very roots to allow for new growth. If I were busy doing rather than being, I would have missed the first visit of a butterfly, way ahead of schedule.
My favorite tree at the end of our driveway lights up to an incandescent red at just the right moment of sunset. I would never notice if I were busy doing rather than being.
We all notice the deer in our yards, with different responses ranging from annoyance to tenderness. This spring and summer, I have gotten to know the families of deer who congregate in my yard, watching the baby fawns grow up and naming a few of them. I would never have time for deer-watching if I were busy doing rather than being.
The OJC has been a powerful partner in my treatment. When I am in the synagogue, I have no to-do list. I am simply being with people who are seeking to connect to something bigger than we are. These times lift my soul. It is such a different way to be a rabbi. It is a way of being.
Doing is most definitely a Jewish way. But being is also a Jewish way.
In a state of being, we notice enough to experience gratitude and see that our world is filled with blessings. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement… get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted.”
I do not want to be in a state of being only. I yearn for a return to my state of doing, a natural rhythm that suits me best. But I will carry this very important lesson with me into my healthy future. Some days, I will leave my Daytimer blank. I will spend the day just being, filling myself with spiritual amazement, ready to return to my to-do list and my schedules… another day.
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
On Israel’s Highway 40 South to Bahad Echad, the IDF Officers School, Jon and I stopped with my in-laws at Sde Boker, the burial site of David and Paula Ben Gurion.
As we looked out over the awe-inspiring desert view, I thought of David Ben Gurion’s words: In Israel, in order to be a realist, you must believe in miracles.
His words seemed to apply to me directly in that moment. Of course, he was speaking of the entire endeavor of Zionism. And I was only thinking about my own unshakable plan to be at Josh’s graduation from Officers School on June 20. Is it true? Was I in Israel thanks to a miracle?
Josh had a large cheering section at the graduation: family, friends, his host parents from kibbutz, and my cousins.
When I expressed gratitude to my cousin Elchanan for traveling so far to be with us, he said, “Is it far or is it close from Hoshaya? It just depends on the story we tell ourselves.” He is correct, of course, about the three and a half hour drive from the north to south of Israel. And he is also correct about how we all choose to live our lives.
For me, I understand this period of dealing with cancer according to the story I tell myself. It might be a horrible, unfair trial or it might be a series of many small and large kindnesses. And yes, perhaps even miracles. It just depends on the story I choose to tell myself.
From the very moment of my diagnosis, I was clear to myself and to everyone with whom I spoke that I would be at Bahad Echad on June 20. I was not missing Josh’s Siyyum Kors Katzinim (Completion of the Officers Course).
I healed from surgery faster than my surgeon thought possible, and he gave me a clearance to go after just three weeks. My oncologist started my chemotherapy early, scheduling it so that I would be as strong as possible for the trip. My healing has been supported and speeded along by the prayers and energy of family and community. And I have worked hard too, keeping a positive outlook, walking every day and trying to eat even when I did not feel like it.
Perhaps my understanding of how one experiences a miracle is best expressed in a traditional Jewish proverb: “We hope for miracles but we don’t count on them.” My intention was clear and I did everything in my power to bring it to fruition. Next, the kindness and support of others is required. But I believe with all my heart that the final essential element of a miracle is God’s will. God makes miracles happen.
זה היום עשה ה’ נגילה ונשמחה בו
Zeh hayom asah Adonai, nagilah v’nism’cha bo!
This is the day that God has made. Let us rejoice in it and be glad.
Shabbat shalom and hope to see many of you at Orangetown Jewish Center this Shabbat as Josh and his grandparents continue touring in Israel.
Why did we choose to spend our first Shabbat after the Passover festival joining with a nationwide commitment to Rohingya Justice Shabbat? The primary answer is: How could we not?
The lessons of Pesach are at the forefront of our minds. We were strangers in Egypt and we suffered there for four hundred years before God took us out with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. Our history of slavery comes to shake us out of complacency. We must protect those who are vulnerable because we know what suffering is.
The lessons of Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day) are implanted in our souls. Here at the OJC we spent the 24 hours of this Memorial Day guarding six candles in our sanctuary as we have done for the past fifteen years. Our people is forever changed by the Nazis’ attempt to destroy us. The Jewish people is commanded “Zachor!” Remember! We remember to mourn, to honor and to hold on to the stories, but we also remember in order to take action.
Such is the responsibility and privilege of being Jewish. We cannot stand idly by. In our community, holiness does not mean only to attach to God. Holiness requires us to attach to humanity, to all people, created in the image of God.
On August 25, 2017, the Burmese army embarked on a massive and deadly ethnic cleansing campaign targeting the Rohingya people, setting entire villages aflame, committing sexual violence against women, and murdering civilians. Since August, more than 671,000 Rohingya people have fled their homes in the western Rakhine state of Burma and made the perilous journey to crowded refugee camps in Bangladesh, joining more than 300,000 other Rohingya people who had fled previous violence. In the camps, lack of food, water, medical care, security and mental health aid for those suffering trauma make the fate of the Rohingya the fastest growing humanitarian crisis in the world. The Rohingya refugees are now facing yet another perilous obstacle: the upcoming monsoon season, which will bring mudslides, flooding and outbreaks of waterborne diseases.
While many Rohingya refugees would like to return to their homeland, the Burmese government is preventing repatriation from occurring. For those Rohingya people still remaining in Rakhine state, violence has continued. United Nations investigators, international NGOs and press are not allowed access to those left behind in Burma. On March 6, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum announced its decision to rescind its prestigious Elie Wiesel Award from Burmese leader (and Nobel Peace Prize recipient) Aung San Suu Kyi. In an open letter, the Museum explained that its decision to revoke her award was based on her failing to halt, or even acknowledge, the ethnic cleansing happening in her country. The Holocaust Museum’s rebuke is an important reminder that the Jewish community has a moral responsibility and a strong moral standing in the international community with which to speak out on the injustices against the Rohingya people.
Life hangs in the balance. How can we take action? First, we must overcome the impulse to be overwhelmed and stymied by the enormity of the crisis. As Ruth Messinger, founder of American Jewish World Service, has taught: “We cannot afford the luxury of being overwhelmed.”
As I urged our congregation today during Shabbat services, we can educate, advocate and assist.
First, we must become educated ourselves and then we can talk with others about this humanitarian crisis. Learn more about the Rohingya people and their plight at:
Second, we can become advocates for aid to these far away people, so different from us, but created in God’s image. Go to AJWS Get Involved Activism to sign a petition to urge Congress t oppose the President’s proposed cuts to Foreign Aid and to write to your Senators thanking them or urging them to sign on to the Burma Human Rights and Freedom Act of 2017. This is an important opportunity for our nation and our elected officials to demonstrate real moral leadership on the international stage, and work toward a lasting, peaceful solution for the Rohingya people.
Finally, we can donate to the Jewish Rohingya Justice Network’s disaster relief fund. AJWS Rohingya Donation Page. This fund will provide immediate and longer-term humanitarian aid—including food and water— to refugees who have fled across the Burmese border into Bangladesh. The Network is also supporting Rohingya human rights activists in Burma in their efforts to stop military violence against the Rohingya community. 100% of this fund goes directly to American Jewish World Service aid and grantmaking in response to the Rohingya crisis.
It is difficult to face the trauma and crisis in the world around us. It is impossible for us to turn away. Every one of us can take one step today. I pray that we all do our part to create the kind of world in which we want to dwell.
Shavua tov and Hodesh tov, A good week and a good new month,
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
Toward the end of an afternoon spent learning about anatomy and physiology for yoga movement, our teacher, Kari, was explaining how the shoulder girdle is a complex joint with 16,000 possible movements motored by muscles directed by Central Headquarters (the brain). The systems of the human body, which I have not really considered since ninth grade biology class, are intricate, interconnected and miraculous.
I thought that the question was only articulated in my mind, but “Who invented this stuff?” suddenly burst out of my mouth.
Kari paused for a single, comedic beat, looked right at me and answered, “God did!”
So many moments along my month-long learning journey to become a 200 hour Kripalu Yoga Teacher were just like that.
This kipa-wearing yoga student was overjoyed to find parallels and intersections between Jewish texts, ethics and ritual and the yogic way of life. I cannot wait to bring back to the Orangetown Jewish Center (tomorrow!! when I return after my three-month sabbatical) all that I have learned. I learned yoga postures, sequencing, and alignment, of course. But I also learned about a sattvic (mindful, peaceful, balanced) way of life. I studied self-care, philosophy, and experienced various schools of yoga. With my fellow students, I also experienced 36 hours of silence. No texting, no emails, no phone calls, no conversation. We Jews are a noisy, talkative people. And I am certainly emblematic of those traits! Holding silence in the safety of our yoga training had a profound impact on me.
The learning was first and foremost through my heart and into my body although there was plenty of enchantment for my mind as well.
In classical yoga philosophy, we studied the yamas and niyamas – self restraints and personal observances to guide behavior and support character development. These beautiful ideas about how to live in balance so that we do not harm ourselves or others are very similar to the Jewish system of Covenant and Commandment that has always guided my life. Studying these values, practicing them and adhering to them reminded me of the Jewish path of Mussar that I have studied with the OJC Journey Group for fifteen years now.
At Kripalu, mindful eating is an essential element of partaking in the beautiful, organic, vegetarian food in the dining hall. I have been coming to Kripalu for 30 years now and have always enjoyed pausing before my meal to say thank you. But for this past month, I experienced profound holiness in closing my eyes before eating to recite the appropriate berakha (blessing) and reciting the words of Birkat HaMazon (Grace after Meals) after each breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Some days, those moments brought tears to my eyes. I wonder how I have gone so long in my life without completely embracing this simple Jewish habit, to always be grateful for the food that nourishes us.
Down the hallway from my fourth-floor room, there is a small meditation room. It happens to face east and also south with glorious views of the woods and mountains in the distance. It was here that I lit my electric candles each Friday night and prayed. Saturdays were serendipitously our day off from training, and I began each Shabbat morning wrapped in my tallit, enwrapped in my prayers. I tried to start at exactly 9 o’clock, to connect with my home community. Entering into Shabbat while already on sabbatical felt real and true to me. During the week, my schedule was not my own. I had to be at yoga classes and in learning sessions exactly on time, complete homework assignments, and be prepared for practice teaches. But every Shabbat, the hours returned to me, truly a free person, resting and being refreshed.
At our final session before graduation, each of us spoke about the gifts of our month long training. I shared that I will always hear in my ear the voice of Cristie, our teacher, saying, “Be bold and confident. Take the seat of the teacher.”
For me, however, the transformation took place in taking the seat of the student. I learned from every single one of my co-students, from our compassionate and gentle teaching assistants, and from our yoga master teachers, Cristie and Kari. Like the great rabbis of Jewish tradition, I learned much from what they taught, but much more from how they live.
I look forward to seeing all of my congregants back at Orangetown Jewish Center in the coming weeks. I have missed you all, and a tiny glimpse of you on live-stream Purim evening was simply not enough!
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill