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A Man of Faith

Not only did he accept his illness without question, he actually considered it a gift

Many readers, I’m sure, recall Rabbi Tuvia Meister of Baltimore, author of The Meister Plan (ArtScroll/Mesorah), who shared two stories in LifeLines several years ago. Sadly, Rabbi Meister passed away on 27 Tishrei, after battling cancer for close to a decade.

Rabbi Meister, who became a baal teshuvah while in medical school, described in his first LifeLines story (Ticket to Eternity | Issue 550) how he developed a 20-year plan for finishing kol haTorah kulah and successfully implemented that plan, while building a beautiful family and working as a radiologist.

In his second story (New Lease on Life | Issue 558), he wrote, “From the time I became a baal teshuvah and resolved to learn kol haTorah kulah, my goal was to die a learned man. But from the time I discovered I had cancer, my goal was to die a good man, in the eyes of my wife and children.”

In the process of preparing his stories for print, Rabbi Meister emailed me numerous times, and I was continually amazed by his upbeat attitude and ironclad emunah. After hearing of his petirah, I went back and reviewed the emails I received from him (including updates he sent me in the years following the publication of his stories). I would like to share with you some snippets of what he sent me (very lightly edited).

Being a radiologist, Rabbi Meister knew a great deal about cancer. From that viewpoint, he had an interesting take on accepting the decree of stage four cancer:

I have never had a problem accepting that Hashem has given me life-threatening cancer at age 54 in 2010. Our bodies contain trillions of cells, and every minute of every day millions of cells are dying and new cells are forming. Every new cell that forms has the potential to have cancerous mutations, and millions or billions of times a day our bodies have potential cancers forming. Hashem prevents that from happening through our immune systems and through metabolic processes we don’t even know about. By age 54, I probably had 500 trillion chances for a cancerous cell to form and survive and grow into a life-threatening cancer, and it only happened once. So Hashem stopped me from getting cancer 499,999,999,999,999 times and only let it happen once. I would call that remarkable protection. Considering I never took the time to thank Hashem 499,999,999,999,999 times for not giving me cancer, I don’t see how I could possibly complain that He let one cancerous cell survive and multiply. That would seem very ungrateful.

Put another way: Let’s say I was in a house surrounded by attacking Nazis and hundreds of American soldiers surrounded the house and fought off the Nazis for weeks, suffering hundreds of dead and wounded. Eventually the Nazis broke through and captured me. Could I possibly be mad at the American soldiers who defended my house for weeks and suffered hundreds of casualties? Of course not. That would be terribly ungrateful. I would thank them for the effort they put in and thank them for protecting me for so long, and I would not hold it against them that eventually the enemy won.

So a Jew should certainly thank Hashem constantly for not having cancer, because it is a statistical miracle not to have a cancer growing every day. There is certainly no reason to be upset with Hashem if G-d forbid a person does get cancer.

Rabbi Meister saw no reason to question “Why me”? In fact, he wrote:

This seems to me to be a silly question. My goodness. There are tons of good reasons for Hashem to punish me. If anything, the question should have been daily, my whole life, “Why me? Why am I healthy? Why do I deserve good health and a lack of punishment?” I have no misconceptions about my avodas Hashem to doubt that there are plenty of good reasons for me to have cancer. Most people do not wonder constantly why they deserve to be healthy, so it seems a bit silly to suddenly wonder why they deserve to not be healthy.

Not only did he accept his illness without question, he actually considered it a gift:

From the very beginning I have been very grateful for the gift of cancer. I verbally, out loud, have thanked Hashem for giving me cancer many times. It has turbocharged my Yiddishkeit, and it has turbocharged my relationships with my wife, my kids, and with Hashem. It is a very special gift. I would never have prayed to receive such a gift, and I pray to be cured and have the gift go away, but for a million dollars I would not give back the experience of having had this gift. A Holocaust survivor once said something to this effect — that for all the money in the world she would never have been willing to accept the suffering of the Holocaust, but now that she went through it, she would not accept all the money in the world to give back the experience.

One night when I first got sick I was sitting alone in the back of the house and praying over and over again out loud for Hashem to give me a refuah sheleimah. During one prayer I “accidentally” said, “Please give me teshuvah sheleimah.” I caught my “mistake” but then it hit me — teshuvah sheleimah is even better than refuah sheleimah, and this cancer is a great gift. After all, we all want to do teshuvah sheleimah in our lifetime, and I had just been given a means to try and accomplish that. Years ago, I dipped in the Arizal’s mikveh in the cave in Tzefas. They say that anyone who dips in that mikveh is guaranteed to do teshuvah sheleimah. Now, obviously, thousands have dipped in it, and we are not necessarily all tzaddikim gemurim before we die. But it occurred to me that maybe the promise of a dip in that mikveh is that we would be granted an opportunity to do teshuvah sheleimah and that this cancer was my opportunity, if utilized properly.

There is another reason to sincerely thank Hashem for giving me cancer. I know that when I go to the Next World all the seemingly bad things in the world will be shown to have really been good things — disease, war, Inquisition, Holocaust, etc. In the Next World a person will understand that all that happened was for the good. So Hashem will show me that my dying of cancer, perhaps at a young age, was precisely what had to happen and that it was good for all concerned. Let’s say I was supposed to die in July of 2013. Hashem would show me how dying on that day was precisely perfect according to His overall plan. But I could say, “Hashem, I see how I had to die on that day, and I admit that was perfect, but couldn’t You have given me some warning so I could do teshuvah?” Hashem will say, “You were supposed to die suddenly in a car crash, but I decided to give you cancer instead so you would have time to do teshuvah.” I will then say, “Thank you Hashem for giving me cancer.” In the World to Come I will definitely thank Hashem for giving me cancer. So why not thank Him down here while I am still alive?

I don’t mean to imply that when I am in severe pain (or especially when chemo side effects are especially severe) that I dance around and sing how happy I am. But it is true that the vast majority of the time I don’t question Hashem. Even though I would never pray for suffering, I really do appreciate the pain or side effects if G-d forbid they do come, and I do express a positive outlook to the kids. I hurt, I feel miserable, I feel sick as a dog, but I do keep a positive proper outlook.

Rabbi Meister realized that in becoming a baal teshuvah, he hadn’t done a favor for Hashem — he had done a favor for himself:

I am still in touch with the Jewish friends I grew up with in the ’50s and ’60s; some of them I know since I was age three. I never preach religion to these friends but just try to be a quiet influence by example. One of these friends read the LifeLines story you wrote about me and thought it was great. I mentioned to her that there may be a follow-up piece. She thought I should talk in the new article about how being a “man of faith” has helped me to deal with cancer in a way that she and all our old friends from kindergarten would not be able to do because they are not frum. I think she has a point. I have been frum for almost 40 years now and take G-d and emunah and bitachon as a natural given. But she is right. If I hadn’t become frum, dealing with cancer with be an unfathomable nightmare without any context to put it in and without any guidance on how to cope.

Cancer, to him, was a catalyst for teshuvah — real teshuvah, not quick fixes. As such, he focused on true, inner growth rather than chasing glittery segulos:

It seems inconceivable to me that Hashem gave me cancer because I don’t wear Rabbeinu Tam tefillin or keep this or that chumrah. It seems to me that the main focus of any changes has to be middos — anger, gaavah, etc. — and improving my relationships with my wife and children. After getting cancer I decided to check the mezuzahs of my heart rather than the mezuzahs of my house. I once had a lot of mice in my house. The exterminator came and explained that a mouse could squeeze into a house even if there is a hole the size of a pencil thickness. So he started checking the outside of my house from one corner and worked his way around the whole house to the last corner. In the last corner was a huge broken basement window that I had neglected to fix. He looked at me with a smile and told me that it was silly to be checking for pencil-sized holes when there was a huge window missing. Obviously the huge broken basement window was how mice were getting into my house.

Likewise with cancer. Am I going to look for “tiny” reasons like not wearing Rabbeinu Tam tefillin or not keeping this chumrah or that chumrah while neglecting the huge broken window of anger, gaavah, etc.?

I am not doing any particular segulos per se. I am just trying to be a better husband and father and a better basic Jew — better bentshing, better brachos, better Amen, etc. Baruch Hashem I have had three opportunities to do shiluach hakein and I received a brachah for a refuah sheleimah b’meheirah from Rav Elyashiv ztz”l when he was sandek for my grandson four years ago. But working on myself is obviously what Hashem wants, not pursuit of segulos.

How did he work on himself? The same way he approached his goal of learning all of Torah: by taking small steps that eventually added up to major achievements. Here’s one practical strategy he described:

I keep index cards around the house, or in my pocket or wallet, that have short sayings, which I utilize to try and help me become a better person. Two of the cards have cut-out quotes from Mishpacha magazine, which I pasted onto the cards.

Here are the two quotes I have pasted to index cards, which I often look at.

This one is from a column that Yonoson Rosenblum wrote: “As one of the deepest thinkers of our generation put it recently, ‘Torah and mitzvos abound today. Yet there is nobody who genuinely works on correcting his middos.’ ”

The second quote is from a recent biography in Mishpacha of the mekubal Rav Chaim Dovid Stern: “Sometimes he suggests an even more difficult task: to really respect one’s wife, to do her will, and to make sure there’s no anger in the home. ‘That is the key to all yeshuos,’ he tells them.”

His own words are his tribute. Yehi zichro baruch.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 784)

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