Piny Hackenbroch
Senior Rabbi Woodside Park Synagogue, London

What risks are worth us taking?

(Pxhere)

Week 9 of lockdown and we are beginning to see certain parts of society ‘unlocking’. People unable to work from home can travel to work, people can now meet outside with one person not from their household (following the 2-metre social distancing rule). In lockdown terms, this is a big breakthrough after being prohibited from leaving the house more than once daily for the last two months.

What is of huge interest to me, is understanding the public reaction to the risk of contracting COVID-19. Ipsos Mori, (UK market research company), released a study at the beginning of the month which highlighted some surprising facts about the British public.

On the one hand, two-thirds of the British people surveyed, say that they would feel comfortable meeting friends and family if the lockdown ended in June. However, in stark contrast, over 60% surveyed said that they would feel uncomfortable going to bars, restaurants and large events.

This got me thinking about my own personal attitude to risk – how do I view risk and what would I be prepared to risk in order to leave lockdown?

People are generally not all that happy about taking risk. Daniel Kahneman (Nobel prize winning psychologist) has written, “For most people, the fear of losing $100 is more intense than the hope of gaining $150. However, Dr Heidi Grant Halvorson, (Associate Director of the Motivation Science Center, Columbia University, Forbes magazine “Danger Where You’d Least Expect It” July, 2013), asserts that it might be more accurate to say that some of us are particularly risk-averse, not because we are neurotic, paranoid, or even lacking in self-confidence, but because we tend to see our goals as opportunities to maintain the status quo and keep things running smoothly. What her research showed was that prevention-focused people generally prefer the conservative option when everything is going according to plan, in order to maintain the status quo; but they will embrace risk when it’s their only shot at returning to status quo.

But that is all very well in relation to physical or economic risk. What about spiritual risk taking? What does our heritage say about the world of the spirit? For me, my Jewish heritage has always asked me to stay open-minded to risk – if it’s for a noble cause. ‘Spiritual risk’ is something we, as Jews, are asked to take every day of our lives. What do I mean by spiritual risk? I’m talking about putting faith in something which we can’t see or touch, like G-d, which enables me to transcend my physical limitations and achieve more by taking that leap of faith.

Three of the biggest risk takers in the Bible are Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Abraham was an iconoclast who left behind his family and upbringing for his faith in G-d; Isaac risked his very life to carry out G-d’s commands; and Jacob risked his trusted relationship with his father to acquire the blessings and spiritual mantle of leadership.

On the other end of the spectrum, our commentators on the book of Exodus tell us about Israelites who were opposed to leaving the land in which they had grown up. They were risk-averse and preferred to stay in their comfort zone in the servitude of Egypt. Consequently, they perished in the plague of darkness. They weren’t prepared to venture into the unknown, to follow G-d into a barren desert. Little did they know or realise that, by taking that leap of faith forwards into the desert, they would take a step to becoming the chosen people and experience Divine revelation.
When I look at my own children, I see many examples of risk-taking. Despite the fact they face the fear of falling over time and again, toddlers are prepared to learn to walk. Children, as they grow, are fearless in the playground and in trying new experiences. Yet, as we grow older, we learn to prefer the comfort of familiarity. Why take a risk, when I can maintain the status quo?

One of the most symbolic images in the Torah is the image of the Cherubs. We know from the books of Kings and Chronicles that, in Solomon’s Temple, the Ark was placed between the two colossal figures of Cherubs, carved in olivewood and plated with gold, ten cubits high. The Gemara in Sukkah states that the two cherubim are described as being human-like figures with wings, one a boy and the other a girl, placed on the opposite ends of the Mercy seat in the inner-sanctum of God’s house. In fact, the Rabbis also teach us that the Cherubs stood at the gates to the Garden of Eden.

For us, therefore, the Cherubs represent the children of G-d and stand as a role-model for us in terms of our approach to life. Be more childlike in our approach to risks. Take risks. And you will be rewarded. In order to come closer to G-d, we will need to take risks to achieve this. In a slightly different context, Lord Sacks states, (The Times 21 July 2012), “civilizations that live… by taking risks never grow old.”

Added to this, there are no downsides in taking a spiritual risk. Mistakes are mandatory in spiritual life – and in fact, we learn most about ourselves from the risks we take spiritually in the way we lead our lives. When we open up to G-d in our lives, there are no risks, only faith. This is most clearly articulated in the Bible by King David. When he is at his lowest ebb, on the run, and with his very existence in danger, he affirms his commitment and faith to the Lord. “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” David took spiritual risks. He was following the example of the Cherubim, in touch with his risk-taking side. With a life of faith and belief, then there is zero risk.

One of the things which has inspired me, during this lockdown phase, is the amount of people who have opened themselves up to new vistas of growth. From my own community, I have witnessed people taking opportunities to learn more and grow spiritually with both hands. People are using technology to overcome their perceived vulnerability and tune into a shiur, or a talk, or participate in a for example, a challah baking class online. Where it was previously too much for people to physically go out to a shiur, people now use technology to engage in learning and take that ‘spiritual risk’.

This is a time of opportunity. We must grab it with both hands. In the spiritual world, there is no such thing as fear of failure. Only by taking spiritual risks and emerging from our places of comfort, can we begin to experience spiritual growth.

About the Author
Rabbi Hackenbroch is Senior Rabbi of Woodside Park Synagogue, London, UK, as well as a commercial mediator, Holocaust Educator and sought after speaker
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