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This happens to me a lot.

I'm talking with someone and sooner or later my illness enters the conversation.

Sometimes I mention it, sometimes they do.

Then they say, "Oh, I am so sorry to hear that."

And I usually say, "Yeah, well, you know, there is much I've gained from the experience, too."

Then they say: "Wow, I bet. You really get to set your priorities straight, huh? Each day becomes really precious, right?"

And I say something like, "Yeah, right." And we move on from there.

But inside I feel sort of diminished. While they're right, of course, it all sounds so pat, so easy.

I imagine a guy who's trekked across the desert, climbed a mountain, dived to the depths of the sea to find a precious jewel. Then he shows it to his friend who says: "Wow, that's really pretty."

Right, really pretty. You shmuck.

What do people think? Do they think that one is told he has cancer and then immediately priorities shift into order, like pieces of a puzzle that magically jump from the jumble and find their place? Do they think that a person is given a diagnosis and then immediately the flowers smell sweeter, anger flees from his liver, and his children no longer try his patience? Sorry, folks, life is not so pat and such transformation and revelation are not like instant soup. One does not walk from the doctor's office with a new life in which the clouds suddenly part and the rays of sunlight dawn.

But then again, what can I expect? How does one describe the journey to find the priorities in one's life? How does one describe the preciousness of each day without using trite words like "precious"?

How many of us have found the preciousness in what we so glibly refer to as precious?

Have I?

I know this much: that the treasure, if it can be called that, lies buried in the depths of the earth, at the bottom of the sea. Once found and brought to the surface it may appear as just another pretty jewel, but the true value derives as much from the search to find it as from what it is that is found.

It may emerge as just another insight or revelation, a new level of understanding or appreciation, but getting there entails a painful examination and sifting of years lived and under-lived.

It is a journey into regret and disappointment, into memories of days lost or at least misplaced. It is the embarrassing recollection of hurt delivered, or of neglect to those and that which one loves most.

It is all that time lying in bed, alone, spent reviewing your life as it was and as it is. Thousands of memories arise as the days and hours pass, and alongside the memories plays a movie that shows how it could have been, how you could have acted; all the times when kindness could have replaced cruelty, when understanding could have replaced injury, when patience could have replaced frustration. A movie in which the camera moves inside of the other to reveal his or her feelings, emotions, hurt, motivations, all the things you didn't see, being so caught up in yourself.

Sure, there are the good memories, too. Lots of them. But the meaningful times your memory brings before you are not the ones in which you enjoyed an especially good meal, or a fun vacation in Mexico, or a beautiful concert; they are the times in which you were generous, open-hearted, thoughtful, good spirited. The times when you gave despite your desire to withhold, the times you were loved whether or not you deserved it, the times when a spirit of unity with G‑d and with your loved ones pervaded the moment.

And these times, the times in which you remember how you acted from your higher self, your best self, set the standard of how you could have been in other times, those in which your selfishness and pettiness won out instead.

Then comes the desire to relive it all, to do it differently, though the impossibility of doing so screams at you constantly.

There is the intense embarrassment of who you've been and the need to find the courage to allow those feelings to be, to wrench your gut and heart with shame and stay there anyway, letting the emotions, unpleasant as they may be, pass through your body like a wave of fire.

One arrives at these priorities as an adventurer, braving the dark caverns not knowing what will be found.

But this is no sought-after adventure. Nothing willed or wanted. It comes in the dark uninvited. It emerges from the loneliness undesired. The images arrive on their own, the memories, the display of wasted days and nights. Wasted in anger, wasted in boredom, wasted in selfishness, wasted in moods and attitudes and self pity.

Then the simple questions arise, clichéd as they may sound: How many times could I have said 'I love you'? Or 'I'm sorry'? How many times could I have risen from myself to pay attention to you? How many days spent worrying about the trivial and inconsequential or striving to meet some image of myself as hero when the simple heroic act of kindness or patience or concern passed by?

These questions arise in fear without answer. They scratch and they dig, they burrow and they hurt. And even to ask them or let them be asked takes every ounce of strength and courage I have. My mind seeks to turn away, to distract itself from the probing, from the finding.

Yet, there is some inner sense that this is the work that needs to be done. That if I am to lie here alone, I am to lie here with purpose; that if this is what arises demanding my attention, then this is what I must attend to.

And when I am lucky, really lucky, there are days I am visited by compassion. Days when I am visited by G‑d and His remarkable understanding and forgiveness. Days and times when I see what was and who I was as all that could have been. These moments of compassion fall rightfully in the category of "precious." That word belongs to them. For it is here, it is then that I have some moment of forgiveness for myself and, with that forgiveness, comes the hope that others will forgive me, as well.

In these moments — too short and far between — I recognize how, when I harden against myself, I see only hardness in the eyes of others; they become the mirror of my own self judgment and unforgivingness.

In the moment of self-compassion comes the openness to receive the love of others, and G‑d knows, in these times of illness it is the love of others I need the most.

But didn't I always?

So with this gift of compassion — G‑d's for me, me for myself — comes love, as well.

And something else, too.


Because while I cannot relive the past, I can live the now. I can begin to direct today's movie in a different way. I can transform that searing shame and regret into the passion of today's moment of generosity. I can do my best, or if not my best, at least I can try. And while sometimes it is still not good enough, it is, I hope, at least better than who I was.

This is what makes the days so precious. They hold the opportunity to undo and correct. They hold the opportunity to be and express today what I withheld or was unable to give and express yesterday.

And this opportunity comes with urgency, because unlike the yesterdays of my memory, I am no longer sure about tomorrow. And while in some ways tomorrow is the greatest gift, in others it is the worst enemy. It holds the illusion that we have time to postpone, time to now indulge in the superfluous — our ambitions and delusions — because, we tell ourselves, tomorrow we will attend to the essential.

We withhold "I love you" because of some infraction of the other — be it wife, child, or G‑d — some irritation or disappointment, some unfilled need and expectation. With this painful discovery of priorities comes new insight to the strength of that "I love you", the same trite "I love you" of songs and movies and novels, the same "I love you" that, like the word "precious", has lost its power and intensity, its necessity and importance. Yet, it is here, in these words and in all the opportunities for their articulation — to loved ones and friends, colleagues and neighbors, G‑d and His creation — that lies the priorities of life.

Does it take cancer to bring such revelation, to reanimate words and sentiments that have become so stale and commonplace?

I don't know. But I don't judge where it came from. I am only so ultimately grateful that it came. And that I have today to try and fill my life with a generosity of heart and spirit that at one time seemed so secondary to all the other things that occupied my time.

It's not so much that I didn't always know these things, but now I know these things. It is not so much that I didn't know what a jewel love was, but I had not yet trekked through the desert, climbed the mountains and dived to the bottom of the sea.

Jay Litvin was born in Chicago in 1944. He moved to Israel in 1993 to serve as medical liaison for Chabad’s Children of Chernobyl program, and took a leading role in airlifting children from the areas contaminated by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster; he also founded and directed Chabad’s Terror Victims program in Israel. Jay passed away in April of 2004 after a valiant four-year battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and is survived by his wife, Sharon, and their seven children. He was a frequent contributor to the Jewish website
Artwork by Sarah Kranz.
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chana givat zeev, iSRAEL September 3, 2008

yup, he's done it again! Jay Litvin has yet again brought me to tears and introspection - and inspiration to share his writing and insights and light up my students' lives and, of course , my own.
He should be required reading in every learning institution,and be shared with ayone we love or care about.He shows us how high a "simple" Jew can go,and gives me hope that some day, perhaps, I will reach a hundredth of his dignity, humility and compassion. Reply

A "Righteous Gentile" Ft. Towson, OK, USA June 1, 2008

Priorities Life on the surface is such a farce. There is so much depth hidden underneath. It appears that it takes a life-changing experience to break through that crust and really, really, "know" why G-d created us and why we are here.

This story is so touching because this man has bared his soul and uncovered the "quick" that really is the soul.

It is painful discovering the true self. But it is also a blessing.

I plan on sending this article to my son who is not struggling with a disease but with a disease of success, at all costs.

Thank you for sharing this heartfelt article. Reply

Anonymous montreal, quebec March 14, 2004

comment about the article on priorities mr jay litvin,

my father was diagnosed with lymphoma in 1999 and the road you talk about the one where your priorities found there place and the meaning of love. it seemed to have taken my family a greater time to acheive, i was wondering how long the process was for you? by the time we got out of anger and into reality already took a while. i say WE were angry because my father did not show anger, probably to be strong as he always is for us.yet he mentionned to us that we should always be good to each other when g-d would (chas v'shalom) take him and he was so calm that i was mad at the fact that he wasn't mad. life returned to "normal" what ever that means yet he did not become all phylosophical. your journey seems to have brought you to a highter purpose .what we or my father realized was that this was a call to strenghten in his judaism. yet a wonder if he will ever get to a point where he'll actually thank g-d for sending him such a test, as you seem to have done. what in your opinion has helped you get to a stage where you recognize thoes blessings or to a point where you change anger to patience and hatred to love. it just seems harder than what you wrote.please write back and let us know i really applaud you for your strenght, this was a great article. Reply

anonymous los angeles, ca March 12, 2004

priorities Thank you, Jay for sharing your humanity so fully with us. You give word to what i sometimes can not verbalize but only feel. You give me courage to continue as you offer a glimpse of another soul's valiant struggle.

May G-d bless you and your loved ones. Reply

Miriam Jaskierowicz Arman Ph.D Plantation, Fl March 10, 2004

the matter of life... Blessings to you Jay...Thank you for sharing your life with us who read your story and thank you for putting into words what most cannot conceive...

Seven and a half years ago I lost my daughter Aviva Tikva (24) to Hotchkins. I watched her for a year and a half, disintegrating from the inside out, while the exterior remained beautiful, whole and without flaw. It was during that time, that I understood the meaning of "Sheliach"- one that Hashem sent to me personally in the form of my beloved child, to teach me how to give, to share, to love, to understand, to cope, to comprehend. She was so intent on extracting certain promises from me, which she knew would turn my life around and give it the destinal resolve which SHE understood and I had yet to "get".

Then she slipped into a coma for seven days, as though to give me a chance to come to terms with the fact that she was not talking on the phone, enjoying time with her friends, eating Skittles and baked potato chips...

The lessons of life are many, they keep on coming day in and day out. Magic formulas do not exist for coping with illness and death, but one thing does become very clear: Each day in one's life is a major opportunity to be "the cause" in something that will "affect" the rest of the world in a special way. We do not believe ourselves to be that "important" and in a way that is good, but what we do need to know and B"H, you know it, that if we dedicate our lives to good, to helping and doing for others, giving and sharing, the days become filled with a light that illuminates us and gives us the power to continue. Your life is such a source of comfort to so many...may Hashem's infinite love guide you every day and may you receive refua shlema of body and soul.

rochelle kaplan balto., Md. March 11, 2004

Mr. Litvin:

I just wanted you to know how meaningful your words are to your readers. Please keep on writing.

B'surot Tovot Y'shuot v'nechamot Reply

Anonymous Blue Springs, MO/USA March 11, 2004

Priorities Dear Sir:

Last night, my 24 year old daughter and I were having a conversation about some of the very issues you discussed in your "Priorities" article in this week's magazine.

I read your article, and I have printed it out and am going to give it to my daughter this morning as it speaks so poignantly to the heart and core of the things we talked about last night; as she is having an internal struggle with these issues which you addressed.

I believe G-d's timing is perfect and I am trusting Him to speak to her through your words as a witness that these struggles do in fact exist within most of us; however, when we put our priorities in order, G-d will give us the strength to overcome the trivial issues of life as we
recognize that ultimately they just don't matter when our history book
of life lies open before us and we go back through the pages. May we all move forward in this fleeting life with as few regrets as possible! Reply

Roslyn Olsen St. Augustine, FL, USA March 11, 2004

Response I really "felt" the words in this essay, at a time when I am feeling and pondering my life with my illness, and seeing all the darkness in this world. I thought I was the only one experiencing these feelings. I thank the author and pray for G-d's blessings and Light to be upon him and all the other dear souls that he is involved with.

doug hippchen Ojai, CA USA March 9, 2004

I am brought to tears reading this article, voices saying the things I need to say. I have been a victim of terror and I know the suffering of Job as if it were myself. Yet because of my faith I am in my integrity like a lone standing tree after a hurricane, storm-tossed and not comforted. I have found comfort in your words, hearing the expressions of understanding, wisdom and knowledge.

Manuel Buenos Aires, Argentina March 9, 2004

"...Thousands of memories arise as the days and hours pass, and alongside the memories plays a movie that shows how it could have been, how you could have acted; all the times when kindness could have replaced cruelty, when understanding could have replaced injury, when patience could have replaced frustration..."

That proves you are a human being and not G-d.

Learn from past experiencies and move on.

Block your negative thinking and go ahead. Reply

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