An excerpt from "The World is a Narrow Bridge"

Click here to purchase and hear music from the accompanying CD

Opening a Door

Rabbi Ed Feinstein

On Highway 101, about an hour south of San Francisco, stands a remarkable spiritual landmark. For years we drove up the coast and saw signs enticing us to see "The Winchester Mystery House." One year, we finally stopped to visit.

Sarah Winchester had married into the Winchester Rifle family. When both her husband and child died suddenly, she became convinced that the family was cursed by the spirits of all those who had been murdered by Winchester Rifles. Told by a well-known psychic that the only way to escape these angry spirits was to go west, buy a house and never stop building it, Mrs. Winchester abandoned her comfortable life in Connecticut, moved to the California wilderness town of Santa Clara, purchased a six-room farmhouse and began a fifty-year project of obsessive construction and reconstruction. At one time the house contained over 300 rooms, with staircases that led to nowhere, closets inside of closets, and bizarre rooms of every shape and dimension.

The mistress of her bizarre mansion, Mrs. Winchester never invited anyone in. She spoke only to a servant and her builder. Her plan successful, she eluded death until her 80's. She also eluded life.

The Winchester House, an odd, architectural monument to eccentricity, is a poignant reminder of how grief and fear can trap a human soul. Poor Mrs. Winchester stayed locked inside her ever-expanding house, while her ever-growing pain, her ever-deepening sorrow, turned more grotesque and bizarre with each new cycle of fanatical construction.

Ironically, during the years of her compulsion, a community grew up around her home. If only she had once opened the front door and invited the neighbors in for tea, letting their children fill the miles of hallways with laughter and play. If only Mrs. Winchester had believed she was not alone in this world.

As I walked through that strange house, I realized I know Mrs. Winchester -- I am Mrs. Winchester. In my fortieth year, I was treated for colon cancer. Four years later, the cancer returned in a much more vicious form. The hardest part was not the surgery, the chemotherapy, the fatigue or the fear, but talking about it with my wife and children -- acknowledging that our lives had changed. I couldn't share the struggle. I remember rehearsing my resolution: "I have spent a lifetime learning to be strong, I'm not going to change now." "I solve problems for a living, I'll handle this." "My job in life is to protect my family." So I remained stoic and silent...locked in my own Mystery House.

As I built this edifice of stoic fortitude with its endless network of catwalks and trapdoors, I was blind to the fact that the cancer had spread, metastasizing to my wife and my children, to my family and friends. My resolution didn't shield them. On the contrary, because of my stoicism, they suffered more. Cancer infects the whole family, the whole community. It poisons our hopes, contaminates our dreams, steals our tomorrows. My isolation, in the lonely garrets of stubborn masculine self-sufficiency, deprived others who wanted and needed to help me.

Pity Mrs. Winchester and all who cannot ask for help; we can help each other heal, but doing so means coming down from the attic; from the place of false heroism, from obstinate self-possession. It means opening the front door, and letting others in. The Lubavitcher Rebbe taught that God constantly rains blessings of healing down on the earth. The problem is that not everyone owns a bucket. Not everyone is ready to accept and gather the blessing.

Healing means accepting the blessings of life, moving from despair to affirmation, from denial to acceptance to celebration. In healing, we learn to endure -- to withstand the loss, and still fill life with meaning. Even in the face of death, we can affirm life; we can share blessings. Traditionally, Jews pray for refuah shelayma, "a healing of wholeness." We do not seek a life without suffering -- that is not the human condition. We pray for the wisdom and courage to embrace life in the very midst of death.

"I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life." This is the most difficult mitzvah in the Torah. It is also the most important.

Ed Feinstein is rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, CA, and the author of Tough Questions Jews Ask - A Young Adult's Guide to Building a Jewish Life. Ed is a cancer patient and still bakes brownies every Friday from a recipe given his ancestors at Mt Sinai.

Click here to purchase and hear music from the accompanying CD