Tuesday night (two nights ago) Yom Kippur began with the moving Kol Nidre service. Teresa and I were there – Teresa’s Catholic, not Jewish, but she comes to Kol Nidre to support me – but I was not fasting, as most people around us probably were.
Why not? The immediate answer is easy: our rabbi reminds us every year that Jewish tradition teaches that health comes first. Since chemotherapy saps your energy, you need to eat; and since it burdens your kidneys, you need to drink. Therefore no fasting, especially if you’re scheduled for chemotherapy the next day, during Yom Kippur itself, as I was. (Could I have scheduled the chemotherapy for another day? Perhaps – but I’d have hesitated to try, since I feel that I’m just getting the new, post-surgery chemo schedule to begin to become steady and routine.)
Still, doesn’t the failure to fast mean that I missed something of what Yom Kippur is about? I could say, of course, that chemotherapy is at least as unpleasant as fasting. But that really misses the point. The purpose of the fast is not to experience unpleasantness but to use this time of abstinence as a period of self-reflection and growth. Chemotherapy can certainly be unpleasant but it demands your attention for itself: you don’t reflect much on your moral nature when you’re worried about whether the intravenous drug will hurt as it goes in (it did hurt for a few minutes, until they diluted the infusion with more saline) or whether the draining and reloading of your pump will go smoothly (fortunately, yes).
So was the failure to fast a moral debit? I would like to think not. I’d rather think of it as an act of moral kindness. One of the complex lessons of Yom Kippur is the importance of dealing gently with yourself. Honesty is very important, but “corrosive honesty” is a mistake, ultimately because something corrosive is not loving, and we are (as our rabbi said at Rosh Hashanah) to love ourselves as well as our neighbors. Somewhat to my surprise, I’ve found that having cancer has helped me see and feel these points more clearly. I don’t regard my illness as a death sentence, but of course it raises the possibility of mortality, and perhaps – as with the man sentenced to be hanged in the morning, whose mind (said Dr. Johnson) is as a result wonderfully concentrated – that sense that the stakes are now really high helps to put other issues in their proper perspective.
Cancer is a part of life, and having cancer doesn’t mean that moral demands cease. But it can help you to treat yourself, as well as those around you, with more love.