Rabbi Stuart G. Weinblatt is the author of the new book Living in the Shadow of Death: A Rabbi Copes With Cancer. He also has written God, Prayer, and Spirituality. He is the rabbi of Congregation B'nai Tzedek in Potomac, Maryland.
Q: Why did you decide to write this book about your experiences?
A: I decided to write it because so many people are dealing with cancer, or may have family and friends who are also confronting cancer. I wanted to try and share the insights I gained personally and from the Jewish tradition to try to help people at a scary time in their lives.
Q: One of the lessons you write about is to be in the moment. How did your experience with cancer cause you to focus on that concept?
A: To a large extent because when you get the diagnosis, it’s so out of the blue. When they told me they saw something on the X-ray, I was sure it was a smudge mark on the X-ray machine. Yes, I had pain, but I was functioning, and felt healthy.
You never know what life has in store for you. You should live in the moment but not for the moment. It’s easy for us to be self-absorbed—it shouldn’t be the pretext for self-absorption, but it can be an opportunity to stop and pause, and appreciate what is around you at the moment.
Q: Did your health crisis have any impact on your own relationship with or feelings about God?
A: There are people who have had this kind of situation and ask, Why me?--people who go through a health crisis and have a crisis of faith. It wasn’t a matter of having a crisis of faith [for me]—I am a believing person. I found that prayer, faith, and belief did help sustain me at a difficult time.
Q: What do you say to your constituents who do have a crisis of faith when dealing with a similar situation?
A: I try to say it’s not a question of God waving a magic wand, but to try and find strength through prayer and faith—we find strength beyond us to help get through difficult times.
There are times our prayer may not be answered. I was fortunate and blessed. There are times the outcome can be different, but even then, there’s a verse that says the hand that wounds is the hand that heals.
Q: How did your illness affect your congregation and your relationships with your congregants?
A: That was pretty extraordinary. The congregation rallied in an extraordinary way. They were extremely concerned when I first shared my diagnosis. The president of the congregation said he spoke with the board members, and there were people who were crying.
When I gave my first sermon at the high holidays after my first treatment, without hair, it was very emotional for all of us. I’m told many people went through many handkerchiefs….
To this day, it’s been five years now, people ask how my health is, and I thank them and tell them, Thank God, I’m doing well.
Q: Are you writing another book?
A: Not at present, no.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: To be perfectly honest, I had mixed feelings about writing the book. It took me back to a place and time I’d just as soon put behind me. In certain respects, writing it took me back to the place I was, and didn’t want to revisit.
But because I felt it could be helpful to others, that’s why I did it. Now, people are starting to read it, and hearing positive reactions—I’m glad I did it. I wanted it to be a relatively quick and easy read, and give them hope and inspiration. I tried to use humor as well.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Rabbi Stuart G. Weinblatt will be participating in The Lessans Family Annual Book Festival at the JCC of Greater Washington, which runs from Nov. 5-15, 2015.