When my father was diagnosed with end stage pancreatic cancer, I was devastated. My father was the healthiest and holiest person I knew. He learned Torah all day and into the night. He watched his diet. He employed humor and creativity to dispel tension and teach Torah. He was careful about exercise and he had generations of longevity genes. I just couldn’t understand how my father could be so sick.
I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t think.
My father was as relaxed as ever. In fact, he was funnier than I’ve ever seen him. I just couldn’t comprehend how he seemed totally unaffected by his grim diagnosis.
On the way to the biopsy at University Hospital in Cleveland, my father asked me to research how many miles there were between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. He was giving shiur (lecture) to me in the car and my hands couldn’t stop shaking. He was completely unfazed by his terrifying prognosis and I just couldn’t concentrate. When I managed to muddle through a Google search on the rivers and their distance, my father explained that in the end of days, Hashem would flatten out the land between those rivers and then give an equal portion to all inheritors. Each inheritance would include a flat portion and a mountainous portion (Yechezkel 47:13-19).
In those moments of anguish, I couldn’t process Torah, inheritance and rivers. My head was just pounding with the fact that my father was gravely ill. Aba’s head and heart were pulsating with the beauty and majesty of Torah and the future. While my father was picturing the Torah’s positive and equitable reward, I was weighed down by his foreboding prognosis.
That day was one of the most challenging days of my life. The miracle for which we had prayed did not reveal itself in the way we imagined. The biopsy confirmed our worst fears. I tried to remain calm as the nurse wheeled my father to the biopsy. I asked her to please take care of my holy father. With a twinkle in his eye, Aba retorted, “I seem to be getting holier and holier each time I am being stuck with needles!”
I asked my father, “How does a talmid chochom (wise Torah student) process this type of diagnosis and still be so composed?” He answered, “It is simple and it is in the Gemara (Sanhedrin 101b).
אמר רבה בר בר חנה כשחלה ר’ אליעזר נכנסו תלמידיו לבקרו אמר להן חמה עזה יש בעולם התחילו הן בוכין ורבי עקיבא משחק אמרו לו למה אתה משחק אמר להן וכי מפני מה אתם בוכים אמרו לו אפשר ספר תורה שרוי בצער ולא נבכה
Rabba bar bar Ḥana says: When Rabbi Eliezer became sick, his students visited. Rabbi Eliezer said, “There is intense anger in the world.” The students started to cry because of their teacher’s suffering. Rabbi Akiva was laughing. They said to him, “Why do you laugh?“ Rabbi Akiva said to them, “And why do you cry?” They replied, “Is it possible that (Rabbi Eliezer who is) a Torah scroll is suffering in pain and we do not cry? “
אמר להן לכך אני משחק כל זמן שאני רואה רבי שאין יינו מחמיץ ואין פשתנו לוקה ואין שמנו מבאיש ואין דובשנו מדביש אמרתי שמא חס ושלום קיבל רבי עולמו ועכשיו שאני רואה רבי בצער אני שמח אמר לו עקיבא כלום חיסרתי מן התורה כולה אמר לו לימדתנו רבינו (קהלת ז, כ) כי אדם אין צדיק בארץ אשר יעשה טוב ולא יחטא
Rabbi Akiva said to them, “That is why I laugh. As long as I see that for my teacher, his wine never spoils, his flax is not disturbed, his oil never ruins, and his honey never turns rancid, I would say, ‘Perhaps, G-d forbid, my teacher has already received his share in this world (and may not receive a reward in the Next World). But now that I see my teacher suffering (for the few sins he may have transgressed), I am happy.’” Rabbi Eliezer said, “Akiva, have I failed to fulfill any portion of the entire Torah?” Rabbi Akiva said to him, “you taught us, our teacher: ‘For there is not a righteous man upon earth who does good and sins not’“ Ecclesiastes 7:20).
Through this powerful Gemara, my father explained to me that the simple truth is that suffering is good. Difficulties purify the soul to ensure merit in the Next World. Aba’s mantra had always been that everything G-d does is for the good. Calmly, he clarified and role-modeled that positive message, explaining that he needed no ingenuity for the Gemara elucidated it all so beautifully.
I was still reeling from the pain and grief of the diagnosis, but my father had now framed the experience through the words and world view of Rabbi Akiva, the eternal optimist. I was determined to see hope and optimism, but I am no Reb Yankel Cohen and I am certainly no Rabbi Akiva. It was difficult and almost impossible for me to be optimistic.
Hopefulness and laughter were Rabbi Akiva’s distinctive traits. While everyone cried, Rabbi Akiva could discern optimism within tragedy, the silver lining in every cloud. The most famous story of this indefatigable hopefulness is in Gemara Makos 24B.
שוב פעם אחת היו עולין לירושלים כיון שהגיעו להר הצופים קרעו בגדיהם כיון שהגיעו להר הבית ראו שועל שיצא מבית קדשי הקדשים התחילו הן בוכין ור”ע מצחק אמרו לו מפני מה אתה מצחק אמר להם מפני מה אתם בוכים אמרו לו מקום שכתוב בו (במדבר א, נא) והזר הקרב יומת ועכשיו שועלים הלכו בו ולא נבכה
Another time, they (Rav Gamliel, Rav Elazar ben Azarya, Rav Yehoshua, and Rabbi Akiva ) were going up to Jerusalem. When they reached Har Hatzofim and saw the Temple site, they tore their garments in mourning. When they reached the Temple Mount, they saw a fox leaving the site of the Holy of Holies. They began crying, while Rabbi Akiva laughed. They said to him, “Why are you laughing? “Rabbi Akiva said, “Why are you crying?” They answered, “This is the place for which it is written: ‘And the non-priest who approaches shall die’ (Numbers 1:51), and now foxes walk there; and shall we not cry? “
אמר להן לכך אני מצחק דכתיב (ישעיהו ח, ב) ואעידה לי עדים נאמנים את אוריה הכהן ואת זכריה בן יברכיהו וכי מה ענין אוריה אצל זכריה אוריה במקדש ראשון וזכריה במקדש שני אלא תלה הכתוב נבואתו של זכריה בנבואתו של אוריה
Rabbi Akiva said to them, “That is why I laugh, when God revealed the future to the prophet Isaiah, it is written ‘And I will attest to Me with the faithful witnesses, Uriah the priest, and Zechariah the son of Yevarchihu’ (Isaiah 8:2). What links the prophecies of Uriah and Zechariah? After all, Uriah prophesied during the First Temple era, and Zechariah prophesied during the Second Temple. The connection is that Zechariah’s prophecy is dependent on the fulfillment of Uriah’s prophecy.”
באוריה כתיב (מיכה ג, יב) לכן בגללכם ציון שדה תחרש [וגו’] בזכריה כתיב (זכריה ח, ד) עוד ישבו זקנים וזקנות ברחובות ירושלם עד שלא נתקיימה נבואתו של אוריה הייתי מתיירא שלא תתקיים נבואתו של זכריה עכשיו שנתקיימה נבואתו של אוריה בידוע שנבואתו של זכריה מתקיימת בלשון הזה אמרו לו עקיבא ניחמתנו עקיבא ניחמתנו:
“In Uriah’s prophecy, it is written, ‘Therefore, for your sake Zion shall be plowed as a field’ (Micah 3:12), where foxes may roam. In Zechariah’s prophecy, it is written, ‘There shall yet be elderly men and elderly women sitting in the streets of Jerusalem’ (Zechariah 8:4). Until the (dark) prophecy of Uriah comes to fruition, I feared that the (hopeful) prophecy of Zechariah would not be fulfilled. Now that Uriah’s was fulfilled, it is clear that the Zechariah’s prophecy will happen.” The sages said, “Akiva, you have comforted us; Akiva, you have comforted us”.
This type of eternal optimism based upon Hashem’s word was modeled by my father using the lessons of Rabbi Akiva. My father became the American paradigm of a self-made masmid (continuous Torah scholar) just as Rabbi Akiva had advanced himself from a stable boy into a talmid chachom. My father taught us to look at events and challenges through the rose-colored glasses of Rabbi Akiva. He taught us that all The Creator does is positive and that with a grounding in Torah, we may even catch a glimpse of the good in what seems bad. My mother dedicated her life to funding my father’s learning in much the same way that Rachel, Rabbi Akiva’s wife, had championed Rabbi Akiva’s learning. And, most of all, these two great men taught us to view every experience and challenge through the pure and positive prism of Torah learning and a connection to The One Above.
Once armed with Rabbi Akiva’s optimism, we began to see G-d’s miracles and hugs in the treatment of my father’s dreadful disease. Within a few days, expert oncologists and pathologists reviewed my father’s case and guided us. A new experimental drug named CPI-613 produced by Rafael Pharmaceuticals showed promise for this type of cancer. My father packed a few essential belongings and his favorite seforim (Holy books) and we began the hopeful journey through his illness, moving my parents from Ohio to New Jersey.
My father was the oldest member of the experimental group and was one of the last to be admitted into this non-randomized drug trial. The drug trial had recently moved from North Carolina to Morristown, NJ, a forty-five-minute drive from my own home. The doctors and nurses at Morristown were taken by my father’s optimism and calm compliance to the rigid framework of their drug trial.
Miraculously, in those frightening early days of treatment, a red fox would visit our backyard. I named the fox Akiva, feeling a hug from Above and the optimism represented by Rabbi Akiva through this fox. Once we settled into a chemo routine, the fox stopped visiting and we did not see him again for quite a while. Akiva, the fox, reappeared the Shabbos after my brother-in-law tragically died of COVID in March 2020. As we sat broken-hearted at our Shabbos table after burying Mordechai on Friday, the fox reappeared, staying in our backyard for a good portion of that difficult Shabbos.
That seemed to be all that we needed and we did not see a fox again. My father b’H survived for nearly two years, far outliving the original three-month prognosis. My father, in his great optimism and calm demeanor, managed the rigors of chemotherapy and the cancer that had invaded his abdomen. He published his sefer, Shashuai Yaakov (delights of Yaakov) during that time, savoring his study of Torah.
My father implanted his legacy of laughter and learning in all who knew him. For the two additional years that he was with us, he strengthened that lively legacy in us, creating a Beis medrash (Torah study hall) space within the confines of a new geographical area, chemo treatments and an aggressive illness. He taught us that joyfulness is not a destination. It is a means of travel, suitable for all times and all places, always with an understanding that all The Creator does is good.
Rabbi Akiva and my father had an additional surprise for me. Early one morning, enroute to shiva for my father, I saw an animal running in front of my car. As I trained my eyes on its movement, I saw its pointy nose and bushy red tail. The fox had returned to bring good tidings with another hug from the Creator. Rabbi Akiva once again had taught us to glimpse the silver lining in the cloud of sadness and loss.