When I worked in high-tech during the Silicon Valley boom years, my division was reorganized every few months. We called them "reorgs," because by the time we said the entire word, there was yet another reorg. During each reorganization a new manager was promoted, people were transferred or laid off, and boxes of belonging were carted in and out of offices. The goal was to push a new product to market before the competition, give or take a few software bugs.

I'm reminded of this reorg scenario every Rosh Hashana. As the New Year approaches I set my sights on the lofty goal of reorganizing myself to produce a better soul. But it's extremely difficult to accomplish this task myself, so deep into the Rosh Hashana prayers I ask for God's help.

Two years ago God helped me with the ultimate reorg... cancer. If anything can transform a life, it's a terrifying diagnosis such as cancer. But like many companies who survive a near-collapse and become adept at fulfilling a need in the marketplace, cancer patients learn to face their new reality. They become leaner, stronger, and more efficient. And, like surviving companies, they refocus their efforts on producing quality products.

Many cancer patients make the choice to become happier, more fulfilled and compassionate.

Jane Brody, in an article about thriving after cancer in the New York Times (August 14, 2007) writes, "I have met and read about countless people who, having faced life-threatening illness, end up happier, better able to appreciate the good things and people in their lives..." This strikes many people as implausible, yet many cancer patients make the choice to become happier, more fulfilled and compassionate. They are even more likely to try to fix the world around them. Recovery from cancer, simply put, can help perfect your soul.

I remember with unbearable sadness all those close to me who have lost their lives to cancer, including my young mother. Yet, after spending many months in the same room with cancer patients receiving chemotherapy, I never heard anyone tell me they regretted having cancer. One woman even told me she was glad she got cancer when she was young so she could use her lessons for the rest of her life. Of course, no one enjoys having cancer, only the awareness that comes with it.

All kinds of challenges can bring out a person's strengths. But cancer and recovery may be unique. Powerful emotions, heartfelt prayer, gratitude, and being the recipient of enormous kindness, are all able to bring a person closer to his full potential. "Your rod and your staff comfort me" (Psalms 23:4). The rod may be cancer, but the staff I leaned on was a new strength and an ability to transform my view of life.

In my experience as a cancer patient surrounded by a community of recovering patients and their caregivers, I've witnessed some global characteristics we share. The following are just a few of the character traits I've noticed among recovering cancer patients:

  • Taking on new goals.
  • A heightened ability to feel another's pain, and even carry it for others.
  • Reorienting one's life to help others, even if it means changing careers.
  • Patience.
  • A search for life's purpose and what God wants from an individual.
  • Suddenly seeing how important our actions are to our family, our neighborhood and even the world. One person does matter.
  • Realizing how God takes care of our needs and also creates needs that others must fulfill.
  • Seeing how perfect our lives are for our individual growth.
  • Learning that a life lesson may necessarily lead us to tears before we can transform.

Very often it is the small things that can transform a life.

What strikes me is how this list contains exactly the kinds of perspectives needed to maximize the days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. People often think only a bolt of lightning can change them. But very often it is the small things that can transform a life. Working on even one trait from the above list can completely change our lives. My hope is that all of us can accomplish the kind of teshuvah, a return to God, that recovering cancer patients are able to -- without the need for harsh treatments.

Cancer is ugly: it is physical chaos and a battle against the sublime harmony of our body. Cancer cells multiply and grow by replacing and even tricking healthy cells. But when the harsh cancer treatments work, order is restored and the cells miraculously return to normal function. Sometimes, that's when the hard work begins: it's called recovery.

Recovery involves bringing the mind into alignment with a healthy body. Recovery is critical to emotional health -- you can't rebuild without it. Part of recovery is a very strong push to discover what you are capable of doing with the time God placed in your hands. This is akin to what we think about during the special days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.

On those long days when I could not leave my bed a neighbor would drop by and regale me with humorous stories. I don't know how she had the time to do this given that she was running her own business. In a world where everyone tries to accomplish several things at once, telling a bedside story is a loving gift. Somehow God placed us together on the same street in the middle of a vast city. The kindness bestowed on me by my community when I was ill led me to recognize that generosity is a key to life.

God's kindness to us is a major part of our daily prayers, but even more so during this time of year when we read His Thirteen Attributes. When we are kind, we are acting God-like and publicizing His kindness. In short, it is as if we are crowning the King, the very meaning of Rosh Hashana.

"As an eagle flutters over its nest" (Deut.32:11).

In the portion of the Torah read around the time of Yom Kippur, Jews are compared to eaglets who are expected to climb onto the eagle's wing for protection. We have to act: we cannot just acknowledge the eagle hovering above us. Once we climb aboard, there is no turning back. Believe me when I tell you that the view from atop the eagle's wing is magnificent, and I am holding on for dear, dear life.

(Sources: Rabbi Baruch Y. Gradon, Rosh Kollel of Merkaz Hatorah, Words of hisorerus, Adas Torah, Shabbos Parshas Ki Savo. Imrei Fi Al Hatorah, Rabbi Pinchas Chatzinoff, Targum Press. With thanks to Rebbetzin Revach for her insights.)