When my good friend Chaim was diagnosed with cancer, at age 17, his life was suddenly and drastically changed. While his high school classmates’ biggest issues were deciding on colleges and gap-year programs, Chaim’s situation made everything else seem trivial. However, he did not allow his condition to consume him. He embraced all dimensions of life, whether they were mainstream or divergent, and completed his senior year of high school, earnestly planning his future alongside his peers.
Present day, when sitting down to interview Chaim, I faced a good-looking 22-year-old brimming with youthful optimism and cheer. Despite the devastating prognosis, Chaim has beaten the odds against his deadly disease and continues to fight it every day. I wondered, how does a person carrying such a heavy burden appear like this? From speaking to Chaim, it was clear what his life anchor was: faith. Through all the insurmountable obstacles thrown his way, he has retained strong faith in Hashem. In fact, his connection to Judaism has strengthened as a result of his difficulties.
Since his diagnosis, Chaim has had several relapses. He has received many rigorous treatments and has traveled all over the country seeking the next best option. Despite these unimaginable hardships, his positive attitude has not wavered, as he continues to live life as normally and humbly as possible.
Chaim told me he has continued keeping faith in Hashem because he believes in the term gam zu l’tova, meaning “this too is for the best.”
“Even when bad things happen to me—not just being diagnosed, but other things in general, like some things just don’t go my way—it could be for good,” he said. “I think it’s all Hashem’s plan. This happened for a reason and that’s all I can say.”
A shining trait of Chaim’s is his optimistic perspective and ability to find light in darkness. This characteristic became pronounced as he speculated on the positivity in his life and how his diagnosis brought his family closer together. He told me it is amazing he graduated from high school and recently, college, on time, despite ongoing medical needs attempting to hinder him. He thinks it is miraculous that he has relapsed mostly at convenient times, in between semesters or after school.
Chaim did not merely complete a schedule of difficult academics, but also engaged in an active extracurricular lifestyle. Being a natural athlete, he was captain of his high school soccer team, while battling cancer. In college, he continued with athletics and was even employed as a referee. In addition to being an all-around sociable guy, he was a member and big leader of Jewish life and its many organizations in college.
These accomplishments can be signs of God’s presence in Chaim’s life, helping him navigate the challenging road. “Hashem works in mysterious ways... even though bad things happen, it still works out,” he said.
Connecting with Hashem through davening every day and learning has guided Chaim in his sickness/fighting process. “I always commit to putting on my tefillin every single day, no matter what,” he said.
Since his diagnosis, davening for health has been an integral part of Chaim’s life. He attended Camp Simcha, the camp of Chai Lifeline, so he had many friends in need of a refuah sheleima. “I believe in this concept that if you pray for others, you will also be healed… it’s kind of a selfish concept,” he said.
Chaim’s statement about the selfishness of a process that is, in truth, rather inclusive, is indicative of his humble personality, which he expresses daily. If you spend a day with Chaim, you will notice the large number of times he recites a bracha under his breath, whether it be before taking a bite of a bagel or exiting the restroom. He believes in the importance of being thankful for all aspects of daily life and saying a certain amount of brachot per day, including for bodily functions. “In the bracha Asher Yatzer, it says all these beautiful things we take for granted. If any organ is ruptured, it would be life threatening,” he said.
The theological complexities of Chaim’s disease, like its medical complexities that stump doctors, are overwhelming. There have been times when Chaim has questioned why he is put through suffering. “I know God is with me; it’s more questioning why is God doing this to me.” Despite these doubts, Chaim said, “Overall, I haven’t lost my faith in Hashem.”
Faith is a strong force against anything and Chaim is proof of that. His commitment to lead a purposeful and meaningful life, in any circumstance, is a beacon of inspiration to me, as I try to find holiness in everything life has to offer. It is common to feel constantly worried and stressed about the future, without living in the present. No one knows what life will throw at them, and Chaim’s attitude is a reminder to appreciate the fortune of living every blessed day and recognize that life is precious.
When Chaim wakes up every morning, he says Modeh Ani and puts on his tefillin. Reciting Modeh Ani in the morning is praising the soul’s return to the body, and expressing thanks for starting a new day full of possibility and hope.
Chaim plans to study for the LSAT to become a lawyer, and has also set his sights on becoming a rabbi, a job fitting for someone who spreads his kindness and warm guidance to all.
By Ally Scharf
Ally Scharf is a rising senior at Binghamton University and a summer intern at The Jewish Link.