I Want to Know What I’m Praying For

I have been spending some time with various medical professionals over the last few weeks, due to an area of my anatomy that is experiencing minor swelling and irritation.
The first theory was that it was an infection, but after a week of anti-inflammatories and antibiotics resulted in no change, we moved on to other possibilities. At the moment, we’re in the process of trying to discover whether or not it’s cancer. It’s a scary thing.
My current situation comes with a lot of uncertainty. My condition looks and feels very minor, but it may or may not be benign, it may or may not call for surgery, and it may or may not require long term treatment.
When I know so little, the question arises: How much should I tell people, and when? If I don’t want to tell anyone about it, I am required to engage in a certain amount of deception. I’m not freaking out, but I am concerned. Every time someone says to me, “Hi, how are you?” I have to decide whether to say, “I’m fine,” and try to smile like normal, or to say something about what is on my mind.
I don’t want to lie to people, but I don’t want to worry them unnecessarily. I don’t want to draw undue attention to myself about something that may be no big deal, and I certainly don’t want to be on the receiving end of a lot of well-intentioned but unwanted medical advice.
I was confronted with all this one evening recently when I was at a small meeting at my synagogue. We were all asked to “check in,” which means we were all supposed to say a sentence or two about what is happening in our lives.
This is a great way to start a meeting, especially in a setting like a synagogue. It helps people to feel connected before getting down to the business at hand. It builds trust and more meaningful relationships. Unfortunately, it can also put a person on the spot when they’re not sure whether they’re ready to share something like this.
After hesitating, I decided to spill the beans, and then toward the end of the meeting, Rabbi Lezak passed me a note, asking me whether I would like the group to sing Mi shebeirach, the prayer for healing, for me. I declined the offer. Then, although I was quite comfortable with that decision, I started to ask myself why I made it.
I thought of the story the rabbis teach about a man who had been travelling. On his way home, he saw smoke rising in the distance, and realized it was coming from his village. We are taught that in this situation the man is not permitted to say a prayer to God asking that his house is not the one on fire.
The reason is that God does not change the past, and we are not permitted to pray for something that is futile. By the time the man sees the smoke, with all due respect to Shrodinger’s cat, either his house is on fire already or it is not. Praying that his house is not on fire will not persuade God to change the circumstances. It is not permitted because it would be a futile prayer.
When I sing Mi shebeirach for someone, I pray according to their circumstances. When my friend Judi was getting surgery on her leg, I prayed for a full and speedy recovery. When my friend Gail lost her mother, I prayed for God to comfort her in her grief. After our friend Mark was diagnosed with terminal cancer, I prayed that he be able to enjoy whatever amount of life he had left as much as possible.
Because I don’t know the seriousness or extent of my condition, if I were to ask people to pray for me, I don’t know what I should ask for. We can’t pray that it isn’t cancer. It either is or isn’t cancer already, and God isn’t going to change that now. Most likely, we should pray for a full and speedy recovery, but that may or may not be realistic. We could pray that God comforts me through my anxiety as we work toward a diagnosis, but God is already doing that.
So, under the circumstances, I’m not ready for Mi shebeirach. Until I know where I stand, I don’t know what path to follow next. When I pray, I want to know what I’m praying for.

Author’s Note: After this post was submitted to TC Jewfolk for publication, I met with a surgeon who said he could find no evidence of a tumor. Therefore, it appears I don’t have cancer, although I still have not yet received an actual diagnosis.