“And that loneliness is worst of all; I’m sure you will agree.”
So goes the iconic phrase from Abie Rotenberg’s stirring composition ‘Who Am I’. The truth is, that we all can agree. The pain of loneliness is from the most tragic human experiences out there. Feeling isolated, misunderstood, or uncared for, are painful emotions that cut deep into one’s heart and leave one feeling as though the ground beneath them is beginning to crumble. Scientific research has linked loneliness and social isolation to increased risk of heart disease and stroke, and it is not for nothing that the millions of poems and songs composed by secular artists throughout the ages center around the theme of companionship.
I recently attended a virtual event for Jewish divorcees. Questions were posed to esteemed inspirational speaker Rabbi Y.Y Jacobson and a lawyer was also present to answer legal queries. It was not surprising to hear from Rabbi Jacobson that one of the chief struggles that Jewish divorcees face is that of intense loneliness. Although loneliness is undoubtedly a malady that afflicts all segments of humanity, it is intensified for the Jewish divorcee. Jewish life is centered around family and community. We are biblically enjoined to have children and attach ourselves to the tzibbur (community). After reaching marriageable age, being single is out-of-the-norm for any Jewish person, and with the added pain of having lost the companionship of one’s spouse and children, the Jewish divorcee’s predicament is acutely magnified.
While others go home to their families, the Jewish divorcee often goes home to an empty apartment. The silence can be deafening. Alone with one’s thoughts, the divorcee often ruminates about his or her situation, spiraling into unhealthy patterns of thought and behavior. At shul and at other communal gatherings, the fact that one is a divorcee is hard to avoid. Even the well-meaning individuals often inadvertently say the wrong things. People inevitably whisper, and the divorcee often thinks (sometimes correctly and sometimes incorrectly) that others are judging them. This often leads the Jewish divorcee to feel isolated from the community and unsupported.
What can the Jewish divorcee do in order to weather the storm?
There are no magical answers. However, there was one powerful thought that Rabbi Jacobson expressed that resonated with me in a very profound way. Rabbi Jacobson mentioned that a relationship with Hashem born of true authenticity can carry a person through the loneliest of times. Without the external supports of a family and extended community, a superficial and tenuous relationship with Hashem can easily slip. However, a deep and genuine one will accompany a Jew wherever he or she goes. A Jew is never alone and Hashem is always ready and eager to listen to one’s thoughts and prayers. Regardless of the language that one uses or their frame of mind while praying, all prayer is cherished. This is even true of prayer that emanates from a place of anger and frustration.
This idea reminded me of a story that I once heard about a tragic yet incredibly moving event that took place in a concentration camp. The sadistic Nazis decided one day to toy with their Jewish prisoners and torture them for sheer pleasure. They ordered a group of Jewish men to undress and jump into a huge vat of carbolic acid. One of the men related that as he took off his clothes and entered the acid, he began to think:
“Master of the World, You have taken everything away; first my home, then my family, and now even my clothes! All that is left is You and me!” The man would later relate, that upon thinking those words he became overwhelmed with such an intense feeling of calm that he didn’t want to leave the acid! His friends began to shout at him that the Nazis had given permission for them to leave and that his skin was burning, but he struggled to pull himself away from the place in which he had achieved such serenity.
I once heard the following thought about the language that King David uses in Psalm 23. The Psalm begins talking about God in the third person (God is my Shepherd…). These opening phrases speak of times of serenity when everything is going smoothly: “In lush meadows He lays me down…” It is in verse 4, where the subject turns to times of difficulty, that the tense shifts to the first person: “Though I walk in the valley overshadowed by death, I will fear no evil for You are with me.” This shift in tense alludes to the closeness to Hashem that one can attain during times of difficulty and struggle.
We do not ask for spiritual tests, let alone an incredibly difficult one like loneliness. However, if loneliness is sent our way we must view it as a rare opportunity to deepen our relationship with Hashem.
It can make us or break us.