I'm the type of guy who for a long time wouldn't ask for help, didn't want help, and frankly, didn't need any help. I prided myself on being self-sufficient and in control of myself and my surroundings.
Stories of personal independence and self-reliance were ingrained in me from early childhood. My father had been born in Riga, Latvia, and through the sheer will of his young, widowed mother, he and his sister – both toddlers – survived a transatlantic crossing in steerage class aboard a freighter en route to the U.S. Penniless and abandoned by their stepfather, the family lived hand-to-mouth, often forced to move when they could not pay the tenement rent.
Then, orphaned from his mother at age 15, my father was completely on his own. It was only through dogged determination and a commitment to honor the memory of his mother that he was able to pick himself up by his own boot straps and not only attend college, but graduate medical school and eventually become a prominent physician in the very city in which he had lived in squalor and poverty.
My can-do attitude was not tempered by any awareness of God’s involvement in my life.
The lesson I absorbed growing up was clear and unequivocal: “It's up to you and you alone to survive and thrive in this world.” I embraced this ethic of self-sufficiency, but having been raised in a secular (albeit loving) home, my can-do attitude was not tempered by any awareness of God’s involvement in my life.
As I grew into adulthood, the value of self-sufficiency manifested itself in successive positions of leadership: captain of the high school track team, camp color war general, consultant, founder and president of my own marketing research company, tenured professor, and a corporate executive.
The first time in my adult life that I clearly recall needing help was 30 years ago, when my wife Carol was hospitalized for a month after a life-threatening car accident. During that challenging period, I was trying to be both dad and mom to our two young kids, while at the same time being there for Carol, as well as running my market research company and teaching at the University of Cincinnati Business School. Out of sheer necessity and resignation, I reluctantly accepted help from my neighbors and co-workers. But in the ensuing 30 years after this accident, I fell back into all-too-familiar patterns of self-reliance.
When our kids left for college, Carol and I began to explore other “empty nester” interests. It dawned on us then how little we knew about Judaism.
Carol and I were born to a generation of Jews who felt that it was more important to fit into society than to stand out as Jews. The only Jewish ritual I remember from my childhood was the perfunctory Passover Seder. We had no Shabbos candles, and I attended High Holiday services as a social obligation, certainly not as an attempt to connect with God.
We were already in our late 40s when we decided to sign up for our first-ever Jewish studies courses, through the Cincinnati branch of the Hebrew University’s Florence Melton Adult Education Program. This program was officially trans-denominational, but it was taught from a traditional perspective. As a result of our studies, we became particularly close with two of our teachers – Rabbi Hanan Balk, and Rabbi Michael Hattin, Orthodox rabbis who gave us our first Shabbos experiences and became my first study partners.
It was a new and very humbling experience for me to reach out to others and acknowledge the huge gaps in my Jewish identity. Being a corporate executive at a Fortune 700 company and a tenured professor at a major university gave me no edge in this regard.
My own moral values dovetailed neatly with the Jewish value system that I was discovering.
My professional background did, however, draw me to the study of mussar and its ethical underpinnings. Integrity is very much the cornerstone of the entire field of market research, because when people are relying on the information you provide to make major decisions – sometimes in the tens of millions of dollars – your information had better be accurate. In my line of work, imprecise information is worse than no information; if executives lack information, they’ll make decisions based on their own judgment, but if they have wrong information, they’ll rely on it and make wrong decisions. So my own moral values dovetailed neatly with the Jewish value system that I was discovering.
At some point, I decided that I wanted to learn Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law, but I felt as though I was drowning in the sheer volume of information and instructions. “I’m going out of my mind,” I told one of the rabbis. “I can’t possibly meet all these expectations.”
“Put that book back on the shelf, Michael,” he advised. “You’re trying to do too much, too soon.”
That advice characterized the type of guidance Carol and I received from our mentors along our path towards Torah observance: we were taught to approach the teshuvah process in the same manner that a Kohen would approach the altar, along a ramp. When climbing a ramp, you move forward at your own pace and gauge your own stride, as opposed to climbing a staircase or ladder, where the increments of ascent are set arbitrarily.
Moving at our own pace, we gradually took on more and more mitzvot. I also signed up for the Partners in Torah program, and was paired with two wonderful study partners: Rav Yosef Chaim Schwab of Monsey, with whom I learned Gemara, and Rav Yehoshua Binyamin Falk of Brooklyn, with whom I learned Halachah and Ramchal’s Derech Hashem. I did not realize initially that my two chavrusas were actually prestigious scholars and pillars of their communities. Why I was fortunate enough to be paired with these outstanding rabbis, I did not know. But I do know now that my relationships with them changed the course of my life in a way I could never have imagined.
When it became apparent that our children would not settle in Cincinnati and that our friends were moving elsewhere for their retirement, we decided to join a new Jewish community that was developing in picturesque Sedona, Arizona, where we often had vacationed. We moved there and became active in helping this community build a synagogue and hire its first rabbi. This experience was positive, but as we grew in Torah observance, we found that the community could no longer meet our religious needs.
At around this time, I experienced a major life shakeup. Living in sun-drenched Arizona, I would go to a dermatologist for periodic skin checks. On one such visit, the doctor noticed a lump in my chest, and he suggested that he do a scalpel biopsy by shaving some cells from the area and analyzing them for the presence of cancer. When he called me a week later to say that the lump was benign, I let out a sigh of relief. Just to be on the safe side, I went for further testing at a major diagnostic center. That, too, proved to be negative. By then I had learned that there had been only 1,600 cases of male breast cancer in the entire United States during the previous year, and that the odds of acquiring it were small indeed.
With the feeling that I had dodged a bullet, Carol and I headed off to Israel to spend Pesach in Jerusalem. On the second day of Chol HaMoed, we walked to the Old City for Bircat Kohanim at the Kotel, and we were fortunate to experience this magnificent event from atop the Aish HaTorah World Center.
“Where is God?” the Kotzker used to say. “Wherever you let him in.” God speaks to us all the time, but we are not always spiritually sensitive enough to hear His messages. My journey to Torah had made me increasingly aware of God’s presence and involvement in my life, and as I watching the uplifting Bircat Kohanim ceremony, that awareness came to a startling crescendo when I heard a “still, small voice” within me question whether I had received the best diagnostic care available.
And so, from Jerusalem, I scheduled an appointment at the Arizona Mayo Clinic upon our return from Israel. At Mayo, x-rays revealed a suspicious mass, and a core biopsy confirmed that I had a grade 2, invasive ductal carcinoma. Surgery was scheduled for a few weeks later.
“A diagnosis is not a decree. Your job now is to transform yourself.”
This diagnosis was not one I was eager to share with anyone, both because I felt self-conscious and because I wanted to be stoic and handle my illness myself, in the image of Mr. Self-Sufficiency. But I felt close enough with my Partners in Torah chavrusas that I did mention the diagnosis to these rabbis. Assuming that my destiny had been signed, sealed, and delivered the previous Rosh Hashanah, I told them that I was resigned to my fate. “What will be will be,” I said.
My chavrusas disagreed vehemently. “A diagnosis is not a decree,” Rabbi Falk informed me. “Your job now is to transform yourself through teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah, repentance, prayer and charity, and present a different image from the person who appeared before the Heavenly court during the previous High Holy Days.”
By that point, I was davening Shacharit, Minchah, and Maariv, but since I’m the type of person who doesn’t need help, it never occurred to me to humble myself and ask God to help me in a personal way. Not once in my life had I ever prayed for my own health. Now, that changed drastically.
In the weeks leading up to my surgery, Rabbi Schwab also had an important message for me. He said that whenever we ask God for something, we should think about what we are giving back, especially through the three T’s of teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah. Our covenant with God goes both ways, he explained, and if we are to be truly sincere, we need to realize that we have a responsibility in this relationship, too. Rabbi Schwab’s words rang in my ears: “God gives to us continuously; what are we giving back to Hashem?” And so my challenge was to figure out how I could attempt to reciprocate, so to speak, for the great blessing of health and healing that I was asking God to bestow upon me.
In a total reversal of my initial approach to my illness, I began to freely tell people about my condition and actively broaden my network of contacts. Soon, I had many people praying, reciting Psalms and learning Mishnayot in my behalf. This was on the prayer front.
On the teshuvah front, I made amends with certain people whose forgiveness I felt I needed to obtain. I also started a Pirkei Avos study group among not-yet-observant men in Sedona, called JEM (Jewish Education for Men). Later, the group began studying mussar.
Another major step that we took at this juncture was to commit to spending Shabbos in a Torah-observant community, which Sedona did not offer. We purchased a Shabbos home in Scottsdale, right in the middle of an observant neighborhood, and began traveling the two hours from Sedona to Scottsdale every weekend, which greatly enriched our davening and learning.
As for tzedakah, I intensified my commitment to the National Jewish Education Foundation, a foundation that my wife and I had founded two years earlier, upon the advice of the scholar in residence at a Shabbaton we had attended. At the time, Carol and I had approached this scholar and unburdened ourselves to him.
“We’re really beating ourselves up over all the Jewish things we didn’t do when we raised our children,” I told him.
“Like what?” he asked.
“Like sending our children to Jewish schools,” I said.
“Do you have grandchildren?” he asked.
“Yes,” I answered.
“Then what you didn’t do for you own kids, you’ll do for your grandchildren, and for other Jewish kids. The Gemara teaches that one who educates another person’s child is considered to have given birth to that child.”
“It’s that easy?” I asked in surprise.
“Only if you do it,” he replied.
As a result of that conversation, we started the National Jewish Education Foundation, which offers matching scholarship grants to Jewish day schools and also funds college campus outreach. And when I was seeking to expand my tzedakah contributions as a merit for a full recovery, this Foundation was the natural choice.
I see now that accepting help has enabled me to give to others in ways that I could never before have extended myself, and I am amazed at the ripple effects that have been set in motion as a result of this cycle of interdependency. Most significantly, the ability to acknowledge my own limitations has made a way for me to forge a relationship with the One Above. As I continue to climb Heavenward on my personal ramp, I am constantly trying to make more room for God to fill my life.
And today, I wear my “Help Wanted” sign with pride.
This article originally appeared in Mishpacha Magazine.