I sat, honestly stunned. The Hebrew words wrapped around me like a balm, and I faintly heard the haunting harmonies my violin could play on top of the alluring music. And like a child running to the pied piper, I felt myself closing my eyes…yearning for the glory of God.
The music ended and the rabbi gave a few people cards—of course I’d somehow been one of them. I turned it over curiously to read a single word: forgiveness. Why had I been given THAT card? I wanted a redo. Forgiveness and patience aren’t things I excel at. I strained to look at a card someone got in front of me. Patience? Well THAT wasn’t much better. Good luck, buddy!
“I’ve given a few of you a card,” the rabbi said. “Please, one at a time, tell us of an example when you’ve embodied the word on the card.”
I quickly handed the “forgiveness card” to my husband. “Looks like you’re up,” I whispered.
“Ummm…” Mike’s eyes bulged.
“Mike, I have cancer. Please.”
“Oh, my gosh. Don’t use that again. That’s not even fair!”
As he studied me, I suppressed my laughter. “Fine!” I whispered.
At that point a man who looked like Jesus walked into the synagogue and sat by me! We looked at each other awkwardly. He knew this was a synagogue, right? Then…I broke eye contact and stood.
“Oh, yes! Thank you!” the rabbi said, clearly relieved that someone had decided to talk about their card.
“My card is forgiveness.”
“Is there a time when you’ve shown forgiveness?” he asked.
“Well…I hope it’s not too much to share, but I have stage 4 cancer. Melanoma. The doctors initially gave me two years to live, and now I might have more. But death…. Well, even though it faces all of us, when you’ve been told you’ll die soon, you have to make peace with a lot of things. There are people I’ve wronged and people who have wronged me. I’ve been forgiven and offered forgiveness, but it’s not always in the ways I’ve expected. Sometimes it’s through giving time and rebuilding relationships to what they should’ve always been. In that way, cancer has been a gift. I have the chance to make peace—which comes from forgiveness—before I die.” Then I sat down. Someone else talked about their card: positivity. Another person stood and shared a story about love.
After that, the modern-day Jesus kept staring at me. I felt uncomfortable until the service ended and it was time to mingle. But the guy followed me after a moment, even as another congregant showed me the Torah scroll at the front of the church and made Mike hold the heavy thing over his head just so he could “get a feel for it.”
“Some people hold this over their heads while other people pray. It’s heavy enough that you hope it’ll be a quick prayer!” the congregant said.
“Wow! That IS pretty heavy!” Mike laughed.
I felt a tap on my shoulder. The modern-day “Jesus” stood there. Then he asked to talk with both me and Mike, but his voice strained as if he’d lost part of his tongue or been born with a severe oral defect.
“Hello,” I forcibly shoved my concerns aside. “My name is Elisa. It was a lovely service, wasn’t it?” I smiled brightly as I shook his hand. “It’s my first time being in a physical service like this…not just on Zoom.”
“Y…y…yes, it was ni….ce,” he slurred the words. Then he slowly explained how he wanted to speak with me after he heard what I said about cancer and forgiveness.
“Do you mind if I sit down?” I asked, then Mike and the man made a space so I could sit next to them. “My back and leg always give me trouble if I stand too long. Sorry about that! What would you like to talk about?” I asked.
Then he told us the most amazing story. He’d been such a dynamic speaker that he’d decided to become a Christian pastor. “I w…wwwww…went to Texas.” He’d gone to school and almost had his PhD in Texas when he was diagnosed with cancer. It first appeared as a tumor in the roof of his mouth. A surgeon removed it, but this man would never talk the same again. Tears filled his eyes. “I didn’t ev…ev…even finish getting my PhD. What was the point?”
“But why?” I asked. “You have such a story to share. You have so much to say.”
“I ju….st don’t kn—know. Who w…wants to listen to someone like this?” He held the back of a pew so tightly that his knuckles whitened. “Anyway, I don’t know exactly what you…what you are go…going through, but I do know it…it’s hard.” He said they got all of the cancer and he’s in remission now. “But this is how I’ll…I’ll live now.”
He’d come to a Jewish synagogue in Idaho while visiting family. Something “inspired” him to attend the service that night. And he’d felt like he needed to hear my story about forgiveness and perseverance as much as I’d needed to hear his story about remission. “Don’t…don’t lose hope,” he said.
Tears filled my eyes, and Mike held my hand as the man continued looking at us.
“I’m glad you’re in remission,” Mike said.
After a moment, silence rested among us like an old friend, and oddly enough, a type of peace descended as well.
“Th—thank you for let…letting me talk with you.”
“I hope you’ll finish getting your PhD,” I said. “You’d make an amazing pastor. Who knows the lives you might change! I know we’ll never forget you.” Mike nodded in agreement and before the man left, a huge smile lit his face.
“Thank you,” he said before he walked out.
“No, thank YOU,” I said. And I thought about his words. How strange…maybe we really were meant to hear each other’s stories.