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The Truth about Lemons

The Truth about Lemons

My father is sick and I'm completely powerless. Now what?


I’ve heard people say a lot of stupid things, but ever since September, when my father was diagnosed with a cancer so rare everyone asks, “Is that even possible?” when they hear about it, the list of Stupid Things People Have Told Me has reached an all time high.

“Oh…” they murmur, sympathetically. “I’m so sorry. How are you doing?” Pity oozes out of their every pore as they rest their hand, in what I’m sure they assume is a comforting gesture, on my shoulder. Next comes the part where they try to offer me some words of wisdom. My favorite so far? The person who looked me straight in the eye and said, “You know when life hands you lemons, you just have to make lemonade.”

Seeing as how it would be impolite to smack them and run screaming from the room, I usually just clench my fists and force a nod.

Were it not for societal constraints, I’d scream, "THAT IS THE STUPIDEST THING I HAVE EVER HEARD!" right in their unsuspecting face.

Life does not hand you lemons, sugar and a pitcher.

Life chucks bricks at you.

Life tosses you a chain saw and yells, “Catch!”

Trust me, you would be lucky if life just handed you lemons.

I know that people mean well. And I suppose if I’m going to be honest, I would admit that I’m not really angry at them anyway. Maybe what I want to really do is cry to God, Why me? Why us? Why my father?! Maybe what I really want to do is wake up from this parallel universe I’ve somehow fallen into and find that -- voila! -- everyone is healthy and back to normal.

Maybe what I really want is some control over all these calamitous events that are happening in my life.

I fluctuate between all five stages of grief at one point or another during the day.

I looked it up and found that there are five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. That sounds about right. I fluctuate between all of them at one point or another during the day. I pretend like everything is fine, I get angry when I remember it isn’t, I make deals with God like,  I’ll pray every day for the rest of my life if You… I eat massive amounts of mint chip ice cream.

But that’s not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about the last stage acceptance.

There’s a saying my father is very fond of, paraphrased from the words of the Chafetz Chaim to one of his students.

Let me ask you, if you’re on the train and you want it to go faster, are you going to go outside and push it?”


“Of course not. That would be pointless. So stop trying to push the train.”

Acceptance doesn’t mean desperation. It just means understanding that you are not the conductor and you can not just get out and push the train.

Everyone always quotes the statement of our Sages that says, “Everything is in the hands of Heaven except fear of God." In other words, you have no control over anything in life. And the truth is, we don’t fully realize this until we’re thrust into events like this where it’s so clear how little control we have.  I’m not a surgeon; I can’t operate on my father to make him better. I have no idea how chemotherapy works so I can’t very well convince it to do a better job. I don’t even have any power over the cells in his body that are mutating in disturbing ways.

I. Am. Completely. Powerless.

So now what?

The “lemons” God hands you can either make you bitter -- or better.

I may be only 19 but I know this much: the “lemons” God hands you can either make you bitter -- or better. I could ask “Why!” until I am blue in the face. I could beg and plead, be angry, stay in bed all day. But none of those would actually help anyone, least of all me.

There is only one question worth asking, and that is: What do I do now?

Everyone focuses on the first part of the saying, the part where they make it very clear just how little control we have. What people don’t remember is the second part: everything is out of our hands except for our fear of God. In these situations, where it feels like the trains is going so fast you may very well fly off the tracks and end up in a ditch somewhere, there is one thing you’ve got going for you. You, and only you, can decide how this will affect your relationship with God. Do you realize what a big deal that is?

Some people ask me how I can still have faith in God when my family is being put through the ringer.

"What does one have to with the other?" I ask.

"Well, aren’t you angry?" they want to know.

"Sure. But being angry implies that I have a relationship with God. I get angry at my parents because I know they love me, so there’s actually a point to getting angry. I don’t get angry at the president because he and I do not have a relationship. God is my father. I’d rather be angry then indifferent."

So go ahead, be angry. Make bargains, eat chocolate. But don’t forget that there is a fifth step, one that is more powerful than any other painkiller: accepting the fact that you have no control. Whether you like it or not, you are sitting on this train and it is going wherever it’s going, at whatever speed it’s traveling at.

So stop trying to push the train.

January 9, 2010

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Visitor Comments: 44

(44) Jonas, September 19, 2017 4:08 PM


All I know is the doctors seem to think I'll eventually die from Brain cancer. The last surgery left me disabled from a stroke and the last round of chemo and radiation was also very unkind to my body. I know Hashem is in charge and I have no power to change anything. All I can do is pray for forgiveness every high holiday season in the hopes that my situation will be changed by the true conductor of the train.

(43) Anonymous, October 27, 2010 2:26 AM

Baruch Dayan Haemet. i went to your father's funeral on motzaei shabat, and it literally changed my life. i never knew him, yet he had a huge impact on me. he was an incredible person and i wish i could have known him. after the levaya i was talking with a couple of people who knew him, and they were telling me the most amazing stories about him. he was a true tzadik.

(42) Anonymous, October 24, 2010 10:03 PM

baruch dayan ha'emet

I attended your father's levaya last night...although I never met him it is so clear what an amazing person he was. I was moved to tears by every speaker, and your brother spoke so poignantly and beautifully. I plan on being a changed person after that levaya and truly take something from it as the rabbi said. I am so sorry for your loss and Hashem should comfort your entire family. Baruch dayan ha'emet.

(41) Miriam, October 24, 2010 7:39 AM

Baruch Dayan Emet

Sivan, it's late Motsai Shabbat and I just read a letter from Aviva relating the sad news. Your father, alav hashalom, is to be buried tomorrow in Eretz Yisrael. I can't sleep...So I did a Shachnavich search on google. I've read so many special things about your family, including your Chai Lifeline marathon run with Barak . This article is the ultimate tribute to your father, attesting to the legacy he leaves this world. May you be comforted by knowing you are each the most amazing children he could have hoped for!

(40) Donna Kachler, October 5, 2010 1:26 AM

You truly know what it is like to have a relationship with God! God Bless you and your Family...I know he has already...He blessed them with you, a wonderful inspiration of thoughts for others that can learn from you! (PS. I'm an alumni of FL and friend of Lisa Roseff; saw this on her FB post)!

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