What follows are my remarks from Friday evening when we marked Pink Shabbat, in partnership with Sharsheret.
Many know that 1 in 40 Jewish women, as well as men, of Ashkenazi descent carry the genetic mutation that makes it far more likely they might develop these cancers. This mutation increases the risk of developing breast cancer by 80% and ovarian cancer by 40%. To put this in perspective only 1 out of 400 carry this mutation in the general population. These sobering statistics affirm what we know. I am sure every single member of our congregation could list off a number of names of friends, or family, who have been affected by these cancers. You don’t need me to remind you of how many people this effects or that it affects Jews in disproportionate numbers. So what more can I say? There must be more to say.
I thought better to speak about what I know best, Jewish values.
The first value is that of shmirat haguf. Judaism believes that we must care for our bodies just as much as we might care for our souls. We think that religion is all about taking care of the soul, but the body is equally important. Our bodies are a reflection of the divine and are therefore holy and must be cared for. They are not temples to be worshipped, or admired in the mirror, but must instead be tended to. Our health is in our hands—well, at least in part.
With all this talk about genetic mutations one can develop a fatalistic attitude. It is destiny. It is fate. It is genetic. But such an attitude would be a betrayal of much of what our tradition teaches. We care for our bodies because they are holy vessels. We take care of our health not because any one of us can stave off death, but because this is what you do with such a divine gift. We cannot succumb to the notion that it really does not matter what we do because it is already imprinted in our DNA. Besides if there is one thing that categorically reduces the risk of cancer it is exercise. Of course it's not fool proof, but if we are to take care of God’s gift of the human body then this is what we are commanded to do. This is what we must do.
That being said no matter what we do everyone will be affected by illness. The human body is imperfect and its lifespan unpredictable. Unlike the soul, which can perhaps be perfected, the body cannot. This is why medicine is much more of an art than an exact science. So what are we to do when struck by illness? First of all get a good doctor. That is what our tradition states. In fact some of the greatest rabbis were doctors. Moses Maimonides is but one example. He may best be remembered as a rabbi, but he was a doctor first. This was his day job.
Second, lean on friends. It is a mitzvah to visit the sick. It is called bikkur holim. According to Maimonides a friend’s visit lifts 1/60th of their pain. It is a mitzvah that supersedes all others. A visit can truly help people and lift their spirits. Too often people think that they have to go it alone, that they must be stoic. We are hesitant to discuss other people’s illnesses for fear of engaging in gossip or betraying a confidence. We live in an upside down time. The most intimate of details are shared on social media but yet we are hesitant to share when people need other people the most. That is the power of community. That is the central message of our tradition. No one should ever have to go it alone.
Years ago, a good friend’s mom was diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer. We did not know what to do. So I called Sharsheret, this wonderful organization founded years ago to support Jewish women and their families. Sharsheret means chain or connection. I called to get names and numbers to give to my friends. I did not even realize it then but I also called so that I could talk to someone about Ruth. I realized something important in reflecting on that moment. No one can carry others alone. No rabbi, no friend, no husband or partner can help shoulder the burden of another’s illness by themselves. An organization such as Sharshert can help to carry us. It can give us strength. That is why we have such organizations. That is why we have synagogues.
Battling an illness is not supposed to be about stoic heroism, but instead about leaning on family, friends, community, doctors and organizations. If there is message we should remind ourselves of this evening it is this. There is strength, and healing, in community. We may not yet be able to undo genetic mutations but we certainly can support more friends. We can certainly reach out to others. We can certainly recognize when all we might require is a friendly, and understanding, voice on the other end of the phone.
Perhaps each of us will find the strength to be that person for someone else. Then all of this pink will have taught us something.