As I stepped into the shule this morning, it struck me again that it too was suffering isolation, alone without its usual friends, bereft of the sounds of tefillah and shmoozing, leining and darshaning.
With a world in lock-down, batei knesset, synagogues, across the world are in splendid solitude and, of course, countless people across the planet are suffering the solitariness; struggling with loneliness.
Loneliness is not the result of the pandemic but rather an acute manifestation of it. There’s been a steady rise in loneliness in the past fifty years or so. More people than ever, especially in the West, now live alone. In the U.K. in 2018, Tracey Crouch was tasked to tackle the issue there and was called Britain’s ‘Minister for Loneliness’.
Being and feeling lonely is unhealthy physically, mentally and spiritually. It impacts on our health; chronic loneliness is associated among other things with an increase in stress and the reduced capacity of the body to fight infection. It undermines our mental well-being, our attitude to life and living, it can be spiritually sapping.
The old African proverb echoes Plato’s assertion that we are essentially social beings. “People”, it says “become people through people.” We are inherently social beings, we need people, we crave relationships, we hunger for community.
The imperative to connect is as old as humanity itself. In the second chapter of the Torah (Genesis 2:18) God spells it out to the partner-less Adam: “It is not good for a person to be alone.” We long for the touch and contact of others and that’s what makes the current socially required distancing and isolating so very difficult.
On the other hand, many of those in confinement are reporting unexpected advantages. They’re discovering an unanticipated creativity in the solitude. There are some people who cope better with solitariness than others; the private or introverted personality has less need for socialization and may prefer their own company for a lot of the time. Moses seemingly tolerated it better than Aharon when he pitched his tent far from the camp …
The Torah itself recognizes the benefits of solitariness. In his celebrated essay on “The Community”. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik argues that God created man alone initially as He wanted human beings to know solitude, to experience aloneness. He suggests two gains from being alone:
1. The originality and creativity of man are rooted in this loneliness – experience. Singleness stimulates singularity and creativity. In the elegant words of the Rav: “Social man is superficial: he imitates, he emulates. Lonely man is profound: he creates, he is original.” The most powerful works of art and thought are the products of individuality and not of a collective enterprise. They are created in the stillness of the heart.
2. The solitary person is truly free and capable of challenging and defying the world to change, to replace the old and obsolete with the new and the relevant. Soloveitchik suggests that this is what allowed Abraham and Elijah to stand up, criticize and rebuke their societies.
Avraham is known as an Ivri (Hebrew) because he stood on one side (the word Hebrew is derived from “eiver”, being on the other side) and defied the gods and powers of his time. Just as Moses and Elijah would later speak truth to power.
The very destiny of the Jewish people is tied up with the capacity to be challengers, whistle blowers and iconoclasts. Soloveitchik calls it our “heroic defiance”. The prophet Bilaam referred to us as “Am levadad Yishkon”; a people who dwell alone.” (Numbers 23:9)
In years to come, in a post-Corona age, we are sure to see the fruits of solitude. Isaac Newton produced some of his greatest and most transformative ideas while in self- isolation on his mother’s farm during the Black Plague. (He fled London when Cambridge was closed due to the Plague).
The American philosopher, Henry Thoreau created his masterpiece and many fundamental principles including his most famous essay on “Civil Disobedience” (heroic defiance?) while in self-isolation in the forest at Walden Pool for two years.
There is, to be sure, a difference between loneliness and being alone. You can be lonely in the middle of a huge crowd. In the English language, the word loneliness expresses the pain of being alone, solitude expresses the gain of being alone. In Hebrew the word “Yachid” is about being a singular individual, the word “Yachad” is about being together with others. They are inextricably connected.One needs both.
The Torah recognizes that to define and realize oneself, one needs down-time, alone-time. Rav Nachman of Bratslav and many Chassidic thinkers recommended ‘hitbodedut’ or self-seclusion. This refers to talking to God in an intimate, informal manner in your mother tongue while secluded in a private setting like a closed room or isolated outdoor place (much like meditative or mindfulness techniques). He would encourage a daily practise which often included shouting out aloud; what he called a “silent scream” … This time of Corona confinement has allowed me to explore the benefits of ‘hitbodedut’ but also of simply spending more time and meditation on daily tefillah.
Judaism, however, has always affirmed that we need community. Indeed, religion has always provided a structure and sense of community and especially at critical points in history. At this juncture in our history the recognition of our collective connection or common bond is stark and urgent. Let’s hope we emerge from Corona with more community conviction, with an affirmation of just how much community shapes our lives.
Let’s ready ourselves to re-engage more passionately with our shules. Let’s prepare our hearts, minds and souls for the re-opening of our shules.
Your Shule is waiting for you.