Jewish Journal


January 3, 2002

Red String


I wear a piece of red string around my right wrist, a talisman for healing.

Since receiving a diagnosis of lung cancer a year ago, my life has continued in a relatively "normal" vein, recognizable to secular Jewish Westerners like myself. I meet with the best oncologists and take advantage of the extraordinary medical advances of our day.

But when Rabbi Sheryl Lewart of Kehillat Israel offered me a length of string, I did not resist. I became excited, my heart racing. As a patient, I was entering a world where logic was obscure. More would be revealed.

As it turned out, Lewart left the string with her colleague, Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben, when she visited Israel, where she promised to put prayers for my health in the Western Wall. One Shabbat, Reuben took the length of string and tied it on me, making a gentle series of knots. "There," he pronounced with a sweet smile, when the wristlet was neat. "Go."

One day about a month ago, I saw another woman with a red string bracelet. I chased her down the hall.

"Your string," I muttered.

"What of it," she said. She did not open up, and my search for a sister sufferer ended.

I have been asked to speak next weekend on the topic, "The Spiritual Challenge of Cancer," at Wilshire Boulevard Temple. I hope to explore not only this specific affliction, but also the relationship between disease and morality, health and faith -- the challenge of living as experienced by most of us, the well and the ill. It is the challenge of the red string.

Though our tradition decries it, Jews are no strangers to magic. Like advocates of feng shui, American tribal healing or any superstitious band of cult followers, in times of pain we go occult, putting faith in colors, mascots, stars -- silent prayers for survival. In the end, my doctors would be happy if magic worked, as would I.

I do draw the line. On the Web, recently, I came across an entire Jewish site devoted to superficial guidance that illness is a distortion of "energy fields." Even my acupuncturist knows better. He would not offer me a piece of blind Torah text and claim that the healing power of Hebrew letters would clear the body.

Yet, the red string does me some good, or else I wouldn't wear it. When I'm washing dishes, the warm water slips over the thread, quickening my pulse. I am reminded, in an intimate way, that my body is leading me toward healing.

Somehow, the simple decision to keep my kitchen clean is connected with the idea of God. God is the action that transports me from cause to effect, from waiting for others to take care of me to willingness to do my part.

It transforms me from a cancer victim, passive recipient of pathetic wishful thinking, to a person in service, engaged in my own salvation.

Salvation is at the heart of the matter. The ill and the well alike have limited time. We inevitably, constantly, ask ourselves, what is it we are doing with what we have left, with the life we have been granted?

As it turns out, the red string comes from the Torah discussion of leprosy, a topic filled with moral confusion. Leprosy is one of the few medical conditions given full biblical analysis.

Like cancer, leprosy provides a "moral warning" that time is at hand. We are not to punish ourselves for our affliction, but ask what to do now. I am not being punished with cancer, but rather I am demanded to take what time I have left seriously, and to resist the inclination toward self-absorption that, sadly, is the homeland of the ill.

The red string reminds me that this struggle, between my body and my purpose, is of utter urgency. It is anything but an exercise in blind faith. It asserts that salvation is larger than what the doctors can do. Unbreakable filament, it provides connection that is direct, strong, true.

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