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Traveling Light

Zehava Kaner

Many of us pick up emotional baggage over the years and end up lugging it around. For Devora Farrell, it took a life-threatening disease to get her to finally put her bags down — and even toss a few away. “I didn’t just have some baggage,” quips Devora, who has stage-four cancer and a total of twelve tumors in her body. “I had a bunch of suitcases, some of them matching.”

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Cancer isn’t the first nisayon Devora has faced — she spent years trying to recover from a painful childhood, is trying to raise a son with a mental illness, and, after a business venture failed, she went from giving tzedakah to receiving tzedakah.

Yet being diagnosed with cancer turned out to be the biggest test of all, one that pushed Devora to completely rethink her perspective on life. “In fact,” she says with a refreshing openness and candor, “it’s not an exaggeration to say that I’m a lot happier sick than I was when I was well.”

It is her ability to wrest joy from despair that makes Devora such an inspirational woman and public speaker, a role she fell into after she was diagnosed with cancer.

As we sit down to chat in the Borough Park home of her friend, I quickly learn to appreciate the witty and wise comments she makes on any and all aspects of life. “Chocolate,” she says, taking one from the tastefully arranged coffee tray on the table, “is one of the incontrovertible proofs that there is most definitely a G-d.”


The Wagon Driver

Like me, most people who speak with Devora want to know the same thing: How do you deal with the nisayon of cancer?

“The crux of the nisayon is not actually dealing with the cancer, Devora asserts. “It’s something else completely. The question is, can I maintain a warm and positive relationship with Hashem?

“When I was first diagnosed, I thought, Hashem must hate me if He’s given me this disease after a life filled with so many challenges. But after a lot of soul-searching, I realized that it just wasn’t possible. He is my Father, and I know He loves me. So He must have a different plan, one that I cannot see. This must be of benefit to my neshamah. Do I really believe that He is the Source of everything? If I truly do, then there is nothing bad — not even stage-four cancer.”

To describe how she came to terms with her own mortality, she uses the parable of the man carrying a huge boulder on his shoulders. “One day he looks down,” she explains, “and he realizes that he’s been traveling in a wagon the entire time. He can put down his rock since the Wagon Driver is carrying him.

“When I got my diagnosis, it became clear that the notion that I was responsible for everything around me was false. I realized that everything was being carried by Hashem. I could stop working so hard.”

Devora, whose family yichus easily places her on the “Who’s Who of Orthodox Jews,” didn’t actually grow up in a religious home. She began her journey to frumkeit, along with her husband, when she was in her early twenties. Bracha Zaret, director of Ashreinu Los Angeles, was an instrumental part of the process. “My husband and I were actually her first students,” says Devora.

Her interest in Torah was originally piqued by an insatiable intellectual thirst. “I distinctly remember taking college classes where the professors would get to the end of the semester and say, ‘That’s it, this is as far as our research goes.’ ” Devora recalls. “With Torah, there was just no end to the questions, to the answers, to the richness. I really think I became frum because I simply couldn’t master the Torah. Whenever I thought I was finished, there was more and more to learn.”

The once ultra-feminist California girl also experienced the sweetness of a Torah life as a child: “When I was a little girl, I used to play with a chassidishe girl who lived nearby. Amazingly, her parents didn’t object to our friendship and they were extremely warm to me. I had a lot of positive memories and associations with frumkeit. I can still smell their delicious chicken soup!”

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