Rabbi Bulka is a Role Model in How to Suffer

It would be understandable if, upon receiving a cancer diagnosis, a person were to retreat, to withdraw.

But that’s not Rabbi Dr. Reuven Bulka’s way. Instead, as ever, he continues to show leadership, to give example, and, above all, to generously go outside of himself for the good of others.

It seems that every time there is a tragedy or crisis, particularly in which his community or he himself is implicated, Rabbi Bulka has something to say with humility, sincerity, and gratitude.

Most recently, in today’s Ottawa Citizen, Rabbi Bulka has an op-ed in which he reports from his hospital bed as “a self-appointed health care ‘spy.'” He writes:

Sometimes we actually find it difficult to say nice things. But I have great difficulty finding anything not nice to say about the system as I have experienced it from the other side. Without any exaggeration, I can affirm that no one in the entire array of health-care providers has been anything less than excellent, sensitive and supportive. I am referring to the medical team – the physicians, nurses and therapists. But it extends equally to the attendants, the cleaners, indeed the entire staff who cheerfully bring me my meals and attend to cleaning the rooms, contributing to the management of such a complex operation.

[…] Looking back over the many years that I have been involved in health care, I recall hearing many complaints and I have no doubts that we humans are far from perfect. But as a spy on the other side, who gained entry in difficult circumstances, I hope my observations that we are so fortunate to have such a wonderful system with so many caring people will be the theme that you bear in mind when you think about our health-care system. We are blessed. We are fortunate. We are lucky. And therefore, should be very grateful.

I know that I am.

Amidst contending with advanced cancer, Rabbi Bulka is prioritizing gratitude – and not even just personal gratitude but public gratitude. It is morale-raising gratitude we can trust because it comes from a patient. Even as he suffers being diagnosed with cancer during a pandemic, Rabbi Bulka is counting his blessings and again, not just counting them in his head but counting them out loud, counting them with us.

Early on, back in March, Rabbi Bulka wrote an audacious column in the same paper which was titled, “We can turn the COVID-19 lemon into social lemonade.” He wrote:

We are used to handshakes, embraces, hugs. All this is now suspended. We are in social distancing mode. Why not transmute social distancing into societal concern, as a way to fill the vacuum created by social distancing. With time on our hands, we can contact family and friends with whom heretofore we did not have as much communication as we would have liked. Telephone, FaceTime and so on, all become golden opportunities that beckon – a great lemonade.

Being “locked up” at home, whether as a result of mandatory quarantine or self isolation, or as a result of closures, can be quite difficult. It is easier said than done, but if we saw this as a golden opportunity to create emotional connectedness when previously there was no time for it, that would be sweet lemonade.  Spousal relationships, parent-child relationships, sibling relationships – all these we will now have the time to hopefully make better.

More available time also makes more possible the realization of projects or personal goals that were on hold, such as reading or writing. A more personal lemonade.

I fervently hope and pray that we will soon overcome this most serious assault on our collective well being. Simultaneously, I fervently wish that we will use the newly available time and opportunity to enhance our immediate and personal world.

And how could I ever forget this interview after the Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting in which Rabbi Bulka exhorted doing 11 good deeds to honour the memory of the 11 who were killed.

I suggested to each person there that they look for 11 different things that they could do of a positive nature to honor the memory of the departed. That includes becoming a blood donor, making a donation to the food bank, or to a homeless shelter. There are so many things that we can do that we may not think of doing. You know what? If you really want to make a difference, take this tragedy and let it speak to you in a way that you don’t just simply coddle yourself and say, “I feel so badly.” Take it and do something positive so that you perpetuate the memory of those who passed away, by making the world a better place. Because every good deed you do makes the world a better place. 

Say kind things.
Spend time well.
Do good deeds.

We may be daunted by how to live and suffer well, but we are blessed to have Rabbi Bulka who shows the way.

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