Dear Rachel, This is a personal story. In October 1998 I was diagnosed with grade II brain cancer that was treated and went into remission in 1999. In October 2010 (sometimes I wish I could remove the month of Cheshvan) I was told it was back.
In December 2010 I had a grade IV oligodendroglioma in the left lobe removed. I started taking Temodar chemotherapy orally. In March 2011, I was told that I have 6 to 18 months to live.
As I sit here alone facing death, I feel Hashem giving me His love, mercy and compassion. It has been a long time since I talked to anyone Jewish, either in the psychology field or a rabbi. In the North Carolina Department of Corrections, we do not have access to the Talmud. I hardly remember anything, except for glimpses of Talmudic studies at the Yeshiva in Rhode Island.
Then there is the problem of rabbis coming into prison for clergy visits, if you are lucky enough to find one willing to come into a prison. He is only allowed to come visit with you or to lead Shabbos services, not both. So I’m stuck between a rock and a very hard place.
I don’t know if you or anybody else would help a very confused and scared prisoner. Anything you can do would be helpful as none of the psychology or religious staff is Jewish, and I don’t need anti-depressants.
As the thought of death is staring back in my face, I am finding it hard to come up with answers and letting go of my yetzer hara. An address of someone, if you can, or just some advice, would be appreciated.
Please understand the urgency of this matter.
Respectfully, James P. (Yaakov)
Dear Yaakov, Your letter has frankly touched me to the core of my being. Before anything else, please keep in mind the words from the Mishna in the Ethics of our Fathers: “One moment of repentance and good deeds in this world is better than all of Life in the World-to-Come.” As you face the unknown, you are experiencing many such moments, moments of self-reflection and self-reproach, as you do battle with your yetzer hara that has caused you so much anguish in the past.
You say you feel Hashem’s love, mercy and compassion. Know that when it’s love for Hashem that motivates you to repent, your past transgressions are considered as mitzvos. Our Sages cite this as one reason a baal teshuvah is held on a higher plane than a righteous person.
A second reason for the baal teshuvah’s elevated status is a tzaddik’s deficiency in the performance of the mitzvah of teshuvah, which happens to be one of the 613 positive commandments in the Torah. The third reason, a most remarkable one, is that the penitent is constantly combating his yetzer hara, while the tzaddik has no such altercation. Thus the baal teshuvah earns merit for this effort and exertion.
I once read a story about a little boy who had an incurable disease. As his devoted mother cared for him lovingly, she also tried to keep him from realizing how gravely ill he was. The little boy’s condition gradually worsened and he realized that he was unlike the other children who had the ability to run around and play. It began to dawn on him that he was going to die.
His mother could read him like a book and wasn’t surprised when he asked her whether dying would hurt. Through her tears, Hashem gave her the strength to answer him. She asked him if he remembered how many times after a long day he had tiredly fallen asleep in his mother’s or father’s bed, where he didn’t belong. Yet, when he awoke in the morning, he’d find himself back in his own room, in his own bed.
She explained that just as his adoring father would carry him in his arms back to his room, so – in death – does our Father in heaven, who loves us very much, carry us in His big, strong arms to another room, where we find ourselves when we awaken.
His mother allayed his fears and the young boy awaited his fate with faith, love and trust in his heart for the Father in heaven who would soon come and take him. In Pirkei Avos we further learn that in this world we are merely in a hallway that leads to the next world, and that we are here to prepare ourselves to enter the World to Come.
You, my dear man, have now the opportunity to prepare yourself — your sincere remorse and tears can wash away any dirt you may have accumulated in your lifetime. Don’t let your yetzer hara fool you into believing that it’s too late, because for as long as you are breathing, it is not too late to wipe your slate clean.