On the Six-Day War and Cancer: Don't Make Haste to Declare a Battle Over

As I recover from chemotherapy, I am reminded of a great rabbi's teaching after Israel's 1967 victory.

David Rubinger

In the introduction to his book "A Heart of Many Rooms," Rabbi David Hartman describes his excitement following Israel’s famous victory in the 1967 Six-Day War and his desire to mark his exhiliration in some substantial way. “Feeling that Jews would lose the powerful significance of the experience of the Six Day War” he relates, “I went enthusiastically to my Rav (teacher), Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, with this request: ‘Proclaim a religious festival; proclaim God’s revelatory presence in history! Must God only be revealed in stories? Can we not celebrate the living God of our directly felt redemption?’ ”

Hartman explains that Soloveitchik referred him to a talmudic passage in Tractate Shabbat, which reports that the festival of Hanukkah, celebrating the Maccabean military victory and the miracle of lights, was not proclaimed immediately after these wondrous events, but rather only in the following year. Pointing out the significance of “the following year,” Soloveitchik counsels his student to pause rather than reacting in the heat of the moment.

While Hartman writes that Soloveitchik’s sobriety and restraint were out of tune with his own feelings of enthusiasm and passion, he later admits that following the shock of the Yom Kippur War in 1973 and his rediscovery of what he terms “the age old experience of Jewish history: uncertainty, loneliness, isolation, and the concern for survival” he felt like writing to Soloveitchik and saying, “Perhaps you were right. We must wait for ‘the following year’ before giving an enthusiastic response to events in history.”

The exchange of these two great modern Jewish thinkers reveals a deeper truth. Sometimes we can only fully understand the significance of an event retroactively, with the aid of perspective and hindsight.

Having undergone surgery last summer to remove a tumour and subsequently completed six rounds of chemotherapy, I recently met with my physician who explained that my most recent CT (computerised tomography) scan was clear and that I needn’t return for another three months. I passed through ambulatory care – where I had been receiving treatment for three consecutive days every three weeks – to thank the nurses, and told the registrars that I would see them in a few months.

All in all, it signified the end of another noteworthy chapter in my cancer story.

A good tale, we are often told, has a clear beginning, middle, and an end. Indeed, in "The Art of Fiction," British novelist David Lodge argues that readers possess an atavistically strong human desire “for certainty, resolution and closure” at the end of a novel. But in the nonfiction world, many cancer sufferers and their families don’t enjoy such a luxury. Should my story conclude with my last round of chemotherapy? When my hair starts growing back, like an old friend returning from a long trip or a flower shyly awakening from winter hibernation? Maybe it’s when I return to fitness, with a long run or a game of football? Perhaps it is only after five years have passed – at a time I hope to be celebrating my 40th birthday – and I continue to be cancer free that I can feel this saga has ended.

It is genuinely exhilarating to have finished treatment, to have ceased with the pills and poison, with the terrible tiredness. It’s a huge release to feel stronger, to take longer walks, to spend more time on an exercise bike. And I have an overriding feeling to mark this moment in some way that reflects its significance. But I also deeply identify with Hartman’s words, his descriptions of uncertainty, loneliness, isolation, and the concern for survival. And – just like the aftermath of the Six-Day War – I realize the profound wisdom in waiting for the equivalent of "the following year" (however long that may be) in order to gain a broader perspective, to better understand the story and the significance of each chapter.

I believe it’s important to celebrate the anniversary of Israel’s great victory in the Six-Day War, to attempt to recreate the exhilaration many felt in those heady days, where, as Yossi Klein Halevi describes in his magnificent book "Like Dreamers," we had "not merely survived but reversed annihilation into a kind of redemption, awakened from our worst nightmare into our most extravagant dream.” Yet, almost half a century on, Soliveitichik’s suggestion of temperance continues to be a lesson worth heeding – in both our national and personal consciousness.

Calev Ben-Dor grew up and was educated in England before making aliyah in 2005. He currently works as an analyst in the Policy Planning Department of the Israeli Foreign Ministry and also lectures on topics of Israeli and Jewish interest.