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Words of Wisdom from “The Running Rabbi”

on Facing Illness and Adversity

by Rabbi Hirshel Jaffe

Inspiration image

Rabbi Hirshel Jaffe running in the 1978 New York City Marathon

In 1978, I bounded across the finish line of the New York City Marathon wearing a shirt identifying me as “The Running Rabbi.” I was equally as tireless in my calling as a rabbi in Newburgh, NY. I had marched for civil rights in the 1960s, rallied to free Soviet Jews, and in 1980 visited the hostages held in Iran. I’d never been sick in my life. I felt indestructible. That was then.

My illusion was shattered when, six years later, I was diagnosed with leuke­mia. For more than 20 years as a rabbi, I had helped others through crises. I was supposed to have all the answers. Yet when I got sick, I discovered I didn’t have them.

I won’t claim to have it all figured out now, but my experience has given me insights on how to cope with a serious illness, or any adversity for that matter. I want to share some of them with you.

♦ Cheer yourself on.
Ultimately, you must learn to comfort yourself. No mat­ter how many people are around during the day, reality can be very hard to face in the loneliness of the night.

♦ Be kind to yourself.
Hug yourself if you can’t find anyone else to hug. Don’t think of yourself as worthless, or worth less than you were before your diagnosis.

♦ Don’t be passive about your medical treatment.
Let your doctors know what you need.

♦ Learn to cherish your very existence.
Don’t feel guilty if you’re too sick to do something. You have value simply because you exist, even if you can’t be productive in the ways you were before your diagnosis.

♦ Hang on to your fighting spirit.
I really believe my fighting spirit meant the difference between life and death for me. My nurses told me that once, when I was delirious, I pounded on my bed rails yelling, “Come on, Hirshel!” I was cheering myself on like my wife and daughters cheered for me when I ran the marathon.

Author of Article photo

Rabbi Hirshel Jaffe

♦ Conversely, remember that attitude isn’t everything.
Having a good attitude can help you make the best of every situation, but it may not help you change your situation. You can’t control every­thing, only some things.

♦ Set goals for yourself.
No matter how small, reaching any goal helps you feel a sense of achievement.

♦ Write about your experience.
Writing a book about my illness gave me some­thing to live for. Some days it took a lot out of me to write even a few words, but com­pleting my book helped me keep my fighting spirit alive.

♦ Keep some normalcy in your life.
If you’re able to use your energy in some capacity, do it, even if you have just five good minutes a day. If physical limita­tions prevent you from doing usual tasks, try to devise new ways to do them.

♦ Do what makes you feel good about yourself.
When my physicians noticed how depressed I was in the hospital, they said, “Be a rabbi. Go counsel other patients.” Doing that made me feel important again. My friends who are fighting cancer tell me the same thing: helping others is one good thing they can do and find real fulfillment in doing.

♦ Don’t lose your sense of humor.
Learn to laugh at yourself and enjoy life. One morning in the hospital as the doctors made their rounds, I said to them, “I think these antibiotics are doing something to me! Something strange is happening to my body!” They burst into laughter. I was wearing a Frankenstein mask!

♦ Be thankful for each day and greet it joyously.
Live your life to the fullest. Since my diagnosis, every moment has been special to me.

♦ Decide what’s important in your life.
I’m learning to say no to people. I don’t want to fritter away my life letting others tell me how to live. For me, being with my loved ones is most important. And I make a point of telling these people how I feel about them often.

♦ Accept the support of your friends and family.
The strong support of every­one who loved me and prayed for me kept me going through my darkest hours. Don’t be afraid to let others know how vulnerable you are; it’s not a sign of weakness to accept help.

♦ Search for meaning from your adversity.
We can find meaning and hope even in our darkest days. I didn’t ask for this painful experience, but I can choose to grow from it and shape it into a positive force in my life.

By facing death, I learned how to live. My illness taught me the real mean­ing of being a rabbi. It’s not who can be the best scholar; it’s who can touch people, who can comfort them. I hope that as you walk your own path through illness, you let the power within you carry you over the rough spots, and I hope it stays with you too.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Rabbi Hirshel Jaffe is a four-time leukemia and lymphoma survivor living in Peekskill, NY. On behalf of cancer survivors every­where, he received the Award of Courage from former president Ronald Reagan. Visit his website at TheRunningRabbi.com.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, July/August 2014.