Yakov Saacks
Yakov Saacks

Some things were hidden from humans



Rabbi Yakov Saacks, The Chai Center, Dix Hills, NY

Author of The Kabbalah of Life

Our last discussion was based on the Talmud’s teaching that there are 7 things that God withheld from human knowledge and understanding.

The first one that the Talmud addressed was the fact that no human can predict the day that they will be summoned back to heaven. We discussed some practical reasons this knowledge was withheld. I hope you enjoyed.


The second on the list, which is the topic for my current thoughts, is that no human can know when they will start feeling better after a loss or some other trauma. This too, is decided by God.

The question is, why?

It would make sense, on some level, to be told that the pain of losing a loved one should be expected to dissipate after x number of months/years.  This would help the mourner know that the pain will be mitigated soon enough, and that he/she needs to hang in there just a little while longer. Instead, we feel lost, miserable, forlorn and are left with a deep void. We have no idea how we are going to get through it, as the pain is so great.


The obvious answer is that each and every one of us is completely unique, just as each of our fingerprints differ from one another. There are so many human factors in dealing with grief that it is literally impossible to predict when it will subside. Those that have had a stable and solid upbringing will be completely different from those who have been dragged up – not brought up. There are also the emotional differences between people, which will affect how one absorbs and deals with emotional pain.

In addition to the above, there is also the ‘what is going on at the moment’ factor. For example, when my father passed, I was in the middle of dealing with another family member in a dangerous trauma situation. There was no way I would have the capacity to deal with both, so I shelved the loss of my father for another time when I was able to process it.


The above thoughts are all true, but let’s hear what one of the great rabbis offers in explanation. Rabbi Yosef Chaim, the Chief Rabbi of Baghdad, who was known as the Ben Ish Chai after his book on Jewish law by the same name, authored over 30 books on scholarly works. His books serve as the source for Jewish Law in many Sephardic households. One of his books is called ‘Ben Yehoyada’, which is his commentary on the Talmud, and is considered a basic resource in understanding certain narrative sections of the Talmud.

He offers the following thoughts: (non verbatim)


The Ben Ish Chai explains that if a person was given the knowledge of when their anxiety, distress and anguish will dissipate, this very knowledge will prematurely truncate the grief, and will not allow someone to grieve properly. Many people have told me that sitting shiva after a loss is a gift, as it allows them to sort through their thoughts and wring the grief out of their system. Others, who do not recognize shiva as that important, seem to hold on to the pain for longer.


The Ben Ish Chai further explains that if one was told that their suffering will not dissipate for many years, it may cause their pain to increase multifold as all hope is lost for the next long while. The increased pain, unfortunately, can lead one into a depression that will be difficult to climb out of. Despair is a terrible thing to have to live with.


By not knowing when the distress will end does have a couple of benefits and can accomplish much.


A person who does not know when their day of pain ends can hold onto the hope that tomorrow is another day, and has the possibility to be much better than today. If one knows that tomorrow will not be a better day, then why bother getting out of bed – as nothing is going to improve. So, not knowing allows the person to function, albeit in pain, as opposed to being non functional and in pain.


For so many, the pain can be mitigated by an attitude change for the better. Any decent therapist will tell you that we need to put more focus on being grateful for what we have as opposed to being resentful about what we don’t have. Many therapists advise a gratitude journal where the person needs to write one positive thing each day. This can help train the brain to not only think negative thoughts, but rather to balance oneself out with positive thoughts as well.


Individual suffering does serve an important purpose, as it makes one sensitive to someone else’s plight. I am more than positive that Jeff Bezos’ (of Amazon fame) son has no idea what it means when people say that they need to wait until payday to pay their rent. You know who understands the plight of not having money? J.K Rowling, creator of the Harry Potter series, who was a single mom and penniless. J.K. is renowned for her philanthropy, because she gets it.  I was once told that the magnate Ronald O. Perelman once remarked, after being dropped off in the Hamptons by helicopter, that he heard people discussing the Long Island Expressway, and he had no idea what they were talking about.


For the record, I personally disagree with the well-known adage, ‘what does not kill you makes you stronger.’  I don’t know about that. What does not kill you, can still make your life miserable. What does not kill you physically, maybe, but how about mentally and emotionally?


Truth be told, I also struggle when a human being tells me that God will not give you more than you can handle. I believe that only God has the right to say this.  This old phrase often sounds more like a taunt than a comfort. When a person is suffering and feeling completely bereft of hope, hearing those words can cause the person to feel even worse than they already do. “If I am supposed to handle this, then why can’t I handle it?”

Sometimes, you just cannot handle it, and you need some help.

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About the Author
Rabbi Yakov Saacks is the founder and director of The Chai Center, Dix Hills, NY. The Chai Center has been nicknamed by some as New York's most Unorthodox Orthodox Center.