Rabbi Sacks on Material Loss

JInsider (March 2010)

When you lose so much of what you had, that’s tough. Judaism doesn’t seek to minimise that fact. There’s a prayer, Hashem yimloch et reiecha - May God give you back what you lost. We are not indifferent to this sense of bereavement, almost. When we lose some of our savings, worse still we can lose our job. Judaism is not a religion of denial. It’s not a religion that says reality doesn’t sometimes hurt. It hurts. And there are moments when you can be very bleak indeed. But the truth is, and I think all of us somehow know this, that it’s sometimes the hardest times, that years later, we look back at in retrospect and see those were the times when I learned most of all, when I suddenly discovered what I’m really about, what really matters to me, what my meaning in life really is.

Now it’s hard to see that at the time, but when you look back 5, 10 years later, you realise that moment of loss was a moment of truth and the beginning of a new life. The reason is obvious when things are going well, we don’t stop to ask: Who am I? Why am I here? What’s my purpose in life? It’s only when things get really seriously bad. That is when we asked that question.

Now, it’s not easy in the midst of loss to think, 'Oh guys, 10 years from now, I’ve going to look back at this and smile!' because in the meantime you’re weeping. But I do honestly believe that that is a time to put your faith in God, to say your prayers, know that God is going to reach down a hand that stops you drowning. He will get you through.

It’s a time when you need the support of friends and family. It’s a time when you really do need to go to the synagogue, to the house of worship, because community helps as well. It’s the time when that whole network of support really matters and they have to get you from here to there. But when you undergo great loss, you will know whether ‘there’ is supposed to be more clearly than at any other time in your life. That is why you may look back at the bad times and give thanks for them.

So I don’t know if this helps, but there will come a time when you will realise that worst times were, in a strange sense, the best times. When things are bad, when you lose your savings, even worse, when you lose your job, life can seem very black, very dark. The worst thing of all is you can’t see the future. That’s really the worst. And at such moments, Judaism does not attempt to cheer you up. We recognise that there can be real moments of crisis in life. We have a prayer. Hashem yimloch et reiecha, may God fulfil what you’ve lost. May He give it back to you in some other way.

I will say this, the Chinese have been around for a long time, 5,000 years. One of the reasons might just be that the Chinese idiogram that stands for 'crisis' also means 'opportunity'. So Chinese knew how to deal with crisis, and that’s how a culture survives. It’s also how an individual survives.

I only know one language in the world that goes one further than the Chinese and that’s Hebrew. The Hebrew for crisis is mashber. Now, if you ask what does mashber really mean? It means a birthing stool, what midwives used to use when they were helping a mother give birth. In other words, in Hebrew, a crisis is the birth pangs of something new. Believe you me, just trust Jewish instinct and realise that this moment of crisis in your life is also when something new is being born.

I think seeing things that way has helped me personally, through crisis.