Making Loss Matter: Creating Meaning in Difficult Times – by Rabbi David Wolpe

Life rarely turns out the way we plan. Yet those unplanned events are often the most defining moments in our lives. Loss gives us an opportunity to choose faith and God. It’s easy to have faith when everything is going well, but deep abiding faith comes from choosing it in spite of what you’ve lost. That is the crux of Rabbi David Wolpe’s book, Making Loss Matter: Creating Meaning in Difficult Times. Loss is seen as a great teacher.

The losses Wolpe explores are more philosophical than literal; although he does address loss of places and people, he mostly deals with the loss of innocence, the feeling of home, dreams, self and faith. He writes beautifully, like a poet, and I fell in love with him in the first chapter. What is so inspiring about him is that he is a reluctant rabbi, a doubter. Originally an atheist, he never wanted to have a congregation. But through his losses, he found faith and found his way to the rabbinate. What makes him so approachable is his honesty about his feelings and the fact that he continues to question God.

The book is written from the perspective of the Jewish tradition. Wolpe uses many characters and stories of the Torah and Old Testament to show how loss can co-exist with an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving God, and that loss may in fact be a necessary part of the human experience for our soul evolution. He begins with Adam and Eve and their exile from the Garden of Eden. “Had they not left the garden, Adam and Eve would have remained static, silent. The world would not have unfurled for their descendents. Careful readers of the story notice that there is no typical day in Eden.  What Adam and Eve might have done in paradise is not described, or even mentioned. For nothing can happen in perfection. Perfection is static. Wandering is dynamic. Loss is real.” (Pg. 47)

Through the biblical character Jacob, Wolpe illustrates that losing a dream can be as devastating as losing someone you love. Jacob is a dreamer but he is also cheater. He lives as if he can walk all over others but has the illusion that somehow God will see to it that his dreams come true. When his dreams don’t come true and someone tries to kill him, Jacob’s dream of safety and the illusion that he can control things is shattered. As Wolpe says, “Jacob is no longer made warm by dreams.”  We all have these moments in life when “false dreams” fall away.

The loss of self is explored through the life of Saul. From page 89: “Before Samuel’s death, he diagnosed Saul’s problem in one line: ‘Are you small in your own eyes? You are king of Israel, and God has sent you on a journey.’ (I Sam. 15:17-18)  Saul’s sin, his flaw, is that he does not have faith in his own importance. Stricken by the fear that he does not matter, Saul goes mad when he sees someone who is strong and confident.”  Wolpe describes all the many ways we lose ourselves and how it happens.

I was most interested when the author discussed David in II Samuel. David loses two different sons. One son was conceived during an affair and dies young, while the other was estranged in adulthood. David’s reaction to each son’s death is totally different.  He actually prayed for the first son, born out of wedlock, to die, and then was indifferent when he did. The other son died after they were estranged. This death hit David very hard. The thought occurred to me that, anytime there is an estrangement, there are regrets.  When there are regrets, grief cannot be healed. As far as my study goes, I am left wondering about parents who lose an unwanted infant. How are they affected, and is there grief?

The last part of the book talks about faith. “Once more the issue is faith, and faith’s offspring: courage. Leaving the old, creating the new requires faith. Loss gives way to renewal. In a faithless world, loss is only sadness.” (Pg. 147) The author has a beautiful way of giving meaning to each loss you’ve experienced, but also showing the reader that sadness and faith can co-exist.

The final loss that Wolpe talks about is the loss of God. This loss is particularly intriguing to me because this issue is at the center of my spiritual counseling practice. I help people heal their relationship with God, particularly when they have suffered a loss or trauma. From a personal perspective, this loss is the most critical of all losses because without God, there is no faith, without faith there is no hope and without hope there is only despair. Despair is the place where I find most parents who have lost an infant, and my goal or purpose for this study is to unearth or create a path from despair back to God.  I am a minister and am supposed to be able to maintain faith in the most devastating of circumstances, but when I lost my infant daughter I went directly to despair, and honestly could not find meaning in her death.

Wolpe’s idea of faith is different than mine, and our ideas about the afterlife are different; he set out to show the reader “How to create meaning in difficult times,” but for me, I would argue that there is no need to create meaning when meaning is already there to be discovered. My goal is not to create meaning out of losing a child, but to help people discover the meaning that is already there.

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