Seders in solitude: Confronting Pesach with hope and spirit

Dovid HaMelech proclaims in Tehillim (42:18) oseh niflaos gedolos livado – HaShem alone makes wonders! There is a Midrash which examines that final word, livado. True, it can mean “alone” as “all by Himself” or “unlike any other being.” Yet, it has an alternative meaning. Levado can also mean “all alone even when nobody knows about it.” The Midrash reminds us that whereas HaShem is alone, and He alone can work wonders, the fact is that many of His wondrous acts go unrecognized. He makes wonders that He alone is aware of.  

That sense of “levad,” of being in solitude unknown to others, is a reality of the Divine. He has no peer, no competitor, no partner. That is why He is G-d, by definition, the One G-d HaShem Echad. For a human being, however, the state of being levad, in solitude, so often is accompanied by feelings of loneliness. The lonesome person, without peer or partner, experiences life without that sense of majestic power. There is no feeling of superiority or unique positivity. So often, the person who is alone confronts feelings of loneliness, of being isolated, fearing that she or he is perceived as different and at times perceiving others as being indifferent towards them.  

This article is not focused on those whose separation from a milieu reflects some personal conflict, defect, shortcoming or disturbance. It addresses instead those who are alone and single during this time of relative quarantine and necessary distancing. The first section of this article is to facilitate some greater sensitivity towards those who must face this interval alone. The second section addresses those who will be alone over Pesach because of the current health crisis.   

THE NECESSITY OF BEING AWARE OF AND SENSITIVE TOWARDS THOSE WHO WILL BE ALONE: 

A WORD TO RABBIS, COMMUNITY LEADERS, AND CONCERNED OTHERS 

Identify those in your community who are single and will be alone during Pesach. Intuit their needs, their feelings, and the support and input which you might need to provide those who have never experienced a Seder alone, or who know little about preparing for Shabbos and Yom Tov independently. 

Have a plan for outreach, or in-reach, if you prefer. Can you network for them to establish lines of communication with others by phone or digitally? Are they in need of rabbinic guidance, religious education, or direction? Do they seek social contact with others who are in a similar circumstance? Do they have family looking out for them, or might you become their surrogate older adult mentor with whom to talk through their doubts? Are they in need of mental health support, possibly with a hotline or other online resources for dealing with sadness, worry, fear? What are their material needs, for which you might direct them towards local resources? 

Can you encourage them to find meaningful, productive diversions during their solitude? Have they skills or talents, or interests, which might benefit others, such as caring phone calls to the elderly, reading and storytelling to young children by phone, writing and artistic pursuits, community service? Do they have family and relatives in distant places with whom they can maintain contact? Are there others in your community with whom they might speak? Is there a former teacher or mentor figure with whom they might reconnect?  

Take an interest in the single persons within your community, and show them that you are thinking about them. More importantly, offer to provide them with the above resources and considerations. Nosae b’ol with each one. 

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SELF-AWARE AND SELF-CARE UPON SPENDING YOM TOV BY YOURSELF 

The next part of this article will address the experience of an isolated single person. This is for you who face these days alone. You are part of the Torah community, even if you may now be feeling as if you are on the remote outskirts at this time of social distancing. It is normal to react to unfamiliar, and to unwanted, situations, with feelings of frustration, or irritability, or decreased verve and drive, as well as with sadness, anxiety, and worry. It is also not uncommon to feel abandoned, angry and resentful. Respect your feelings, because they are a part of you at this time. It is important to recognize that reactions in both feelings and thought due tend to be uncomfortable when under stress. Stress refers to the objective events around us. Distress is what happens within us. Do not judge or criticize yourself when you react with any form of distress. Rather, acknowledge it, express it, observe it, and console yourself with the validating realization that it is very common to feel distressed during such times.  

Ideally, a supportive sounding board such as a trusted friend or close relative is useful for expressing and processing one’s reactions. When the friend is supportive, validating, accepting and encouraging, some of the distress often subsides. This allows one to access and marshal their own internal resources for clearer thinking, effective planning, problem-solving and self-caring pursuits. At times, making use of a hotline for brief counseling can also be advantageous, especially if you are prone to brooding and withdrawing. The majority of persons who are reacting to quarantine-induced lonesomeness are normal people having normal reactions. If you find that you are just not yourself at this time, consider turning to a professional resource for guidance. Similarly, if solitude is triggering memories of past episodes of trauma, or if you are immobilized, or other factors interfere with your adjustment and functioning, it is very important that you turn to professional resources for assistance and possible intervention. If you struggle with addictive tendencies and require contact with a program, that is your self-care requirement. Your current circumstances may bring on feelings of self-blame, guilt, ruminations or feeling that you are failing to cope. The reality is that you are part of a large population of single persons who are current shut-in, just as are most other segments of the community. That is not your fault and in no way implies personal weakness or deficiency. But, if your mind is swept away into thoughts of hopelessness and feelings of despair, reach out to a helpline or to your mental health professional.   

There are educational resources online, ranging from webinars about coping, Torah courses, discussion groups, cooking instruction, and words of inspiration and courage. If you do not have access to these rich sources, turn to your Orthodox synagogue for links to any and all of these websites. There are websites such as Jewisheverything.net which avail hundreds of thousands of recorded lectures and topical discussions. Take time, make time, for learning more about your religious legacy, about holiday preparations, and about spiritual vistas to aim for at this time and always. 

Social connection is vital to mental health, no matter how upbeat you are by nature, and conversely, no matter how introverted you prefer to be. If connection must be virtual at this time, go for it. The leaders of your congregation can direct you to phone call-in chats, interactive programs via digital media, and volunteering opportunities within the community which, while often expecting you to go out of your home in order to assist safely with one or another task (i.e. preparing and delivering goods to those who are not mobile), you can develop a camaraderie with others who participate similarly in acts of kindness to those in need. 

Interpersonal communication is most important, as well as refreshing and cathartic. Make time to call people who care about you, and about whom you care. Check in, greet them, inquire about them, and form a list of people whom you would like to touch base with throughout the week. And do so. If you have relatives or family with whom you would normally be spending yom tov, be sure to establish meaningful conversations with them, sharing reminiscence and nostalgia of past Passovers, discussing ways to spend the holiday this year, ideas about running your own respective sedarim, recipe ideas, hopes and wishes for next year “in Jerusalem” and exchanging yom tov blessings. For those who have no family with whom to connect, consider reaching forth to mentor figures, favorite teachers, rabbis, rebetzinsrespected persons from your past, those whom despite their own busy lives may be thrilled to hear from you. 

Selfcare is paramount, particularly during times of stress. Keep to your customary routine, schedule your days and evenings, and structure your spare time with healthful, productive and even creative activities. Sleeptime, waking time, meals, exercise, fresh air, mindfulness, artistic and musical diversions, are all part of a healthy routine. Make time to breathe, literally, and to focus on your inner experience. Do a regular “self scan”, while breathing and relaxing in a comfortable posture, examining your current thoughts, your emotions, your physical sensations, your posture and movement, and your spiritual process. Keep a daily journal of your selfawareness, writing whatever comes out, whether or not it is grammatical, poetic or makes a lot of objective sense to anyone else. You have a brain with many facets, and mindful focus allows you to stimulate parts of your mind which often get overlooked. 

Avoid being critical of yourself and of others. Set aside judgmental views and take as optimistic a stance as you can about yourself and others. Make time to vocalize gratitude to those who have impressed you. Make a short list at the end of the day of things for which you feel grateful to HaShem. This process helps rewire the somber brain, and can contribute to mental wellness. 

It is difficult to be alone. It is harder when you feel alone and when your life loses its meaningful routine. There are limits to what you can accomplish on your own, and for that reason, pursue opportunities to integrate with others. Maintain your sense of purpose and dignity. Better times will, b’ezras HaShem, soon be here. We are all making use of our prayer and expressing our trust in HaShem at this time. We turn to Him alone for insight and for consolation. We are alone as we turn to Him alone. We began this article by looking at how HaShem is levado, He is One and there is no other. Remember that the Hebrew word for isolation is spelled with letters that equal exactly the numerical equivalent of HaShem. He alone is always there for us, and we are never alone when we turn to Him. Good yom tov! 

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Dovid Fox is the Director of Interventions & Community Education at Project Chai, the crisis intervention, trauma and bereavement department of Chai Lifeline.
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