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Rabbi Sydni's Shabbat Sermons

פרשת לך-לך, תש״פ

Parshat Lekh-L'kha, 5780

by Rabbi Sydni

Saturday, November 9th, 2019

Together We Can Prevent Cancer

On Wednesday morning this week, Rabbi Feivel and I attended a seminar for clergy entitled “Together We Can Prevent Cancer.” We were bombarded right off the bat with a slew of terrifying statistics - Louisiana is state number 46 out of 50 in aggregate cancer outcomes, meaning that the percentage of people who survive cancer in the state of Louisiana, and especially in Caddo Parish and our surrounding areas, is dramatically low. We at this seminar were a room of individuals blessed with a vocation in which people listen to what we say and sometimes even seek us out for conversation or counseling. But the goal of this seminar was not simply for us to share the vital, accessible nature of cancer prevention with our congregants, but rather, to get our congregants to share methods for that prevention with their loved ones, as well.

In the Ashkenazi Jewish community, especially, we have the added burden of a pesky set of genetic markers, such as BRCA1 and 2, that make us more susceptible to certain cancers than other members of the population. Even for those not born from Ashkenazi parents, if any of your close family members have experienced cancer, especially at a young age, you and the rest of your family may be at a higher risk. Cancer risks that can be passed down from generation to generation include breast cancer, ovarian cancer, prostate cancer, pancreatic cancer, and melanoma. Aside from simply being aware of risk, with today’s technology, we have the ability to screen cancers early on and even to undergo genetic testing for such risks. By undergoing genetic testing, patients can seek different risk management options, like removing tissues that may be affected or screening more often. And for those who are squeamish about being poked and prodded, this sort of genetic testing simply entails spitting into a cup.

In our parshah, God promises Avraham that he will be the father of a nation with numbers beyond the stars in the sky. God cuts a covenant with Avraham to be taken on by his descendents forever. And now, Abraham’s descendents (that’s us) have the responsibility to keep our people strong, healthy, and growing in number. We don’t spout the mantra of pikuah nefesh, the pressing mitzvah to save a life over almost all else, for nothing. Our tradition asks us to teach our children and our children’s children, but we can only do so if there are children and children’s children to teach.

And so, let us teach our children and grandchildren; let us teach parents, cousins, aunts, and uncles about the vital and accessible nature of cancer screening and genetic testing. And while we’re teaching those family members, we can take the opportunity to share family medical history. Who in the family has experienced cancer, and what was their experience like? The more a family knows about its medical history, the more those at risk can be prepared. When one family member finds out about a certain genetic marker, she can benefit the lives of brothers, sisters, nieces, and nephews with new knowledge. At our seminar on Wednesday, the presenters even suggested Thanksgiving and other holiday dinners as perfect times to have such conversations. This time in which we appreciate each other’s presence can be used to maintain the presence and health of everyone at the table.

For those at the appropriate age and with the appropriate risk factors, screening for lung, colon, cervical, and breast cancer are all offered at no cost with our current government policies. PAP smears and HPV vaccines are both free with all major health insurance. For those who can’t make it to the doctor or who need extra treatment or prevention, Willis Knighton offers social services, counseling, and transportation, and I assume that they are not the only medical center in the area to do so. Outside of organizational structure, I am here - your fellow congregants are here to make sure you get the preventative care that you need and to have uncomfortable conversations about what cancer might mean or look like in your family. I’ve put fliers on the table by the sanctuary door with much more information, and you have several doctors in the room who could give you more information about cancer prevention than I could ever provide. As saving one life saves an entire world, we now have no excuse to avoid cancer screening and genetic testing. We now have no excuse to avoid speaking to those we love about steps they must take towards their wellness.

With thanks to God who gives us bodies to maintain and to the physicians who help us maintain those bodies, I’ll finish with a rabbinic story (trans. Rabbi Elliot Dorff, Matters of Life and Death 28)...

It once happened that Rabbi Ishmael and Rabbi Akiba were strolling in the streets of Jerusalem accompanied by another person. They were met by a sick person. He said to them, “My masters, tell me by what means I may be cured.” They told him, “Do thus and so until you are cured.” The sick man asked them, “And who afflicted me?” They replied, “The Holy One, blessed be He.” The sick man responded, “You have entered into a matter which does not pertain to you. God has afflicted, and you seek to cure! Are you not transgressing His will?”

Rabbi Akiba and Rabbi Ishmael asked him, “What is your occupation?” The sick man answered, “I am a tiller of the soil, and here is the sickle in my hand.” They asked him, “Who created the vineyard?” “The Holy One, blessed be He,” he answered. Rabbi Akiba and Rabbi Ishmael said to him, “You enter into a matter which does not pertain to you! God created the vineyard, and you cut fruits from it.”

He said to them, “Do you not see the sickle in my hand? If I did not plow, sow, fertilize, and weed, nothing would sprout.”

Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Ishmael said to him, “Foolish man!...Just as if one does not weed, fertilize, and plow, the trees will not produce fruit, and if fruit is produced but is not watered or fertilized, it will not live but die, so with regard to the body. Drugs and medicaments are the fertilizer, and the physician is the tiller of the soil.”

Now that we have the resources, let us use them to fertilize and till the soil of our bodies and those of our beloved.