(RNS) — I have just completed my first year as the interim rabbi at Temple Israel in West Palm Beach, Florida. This past year has been one of the most wonderful in my career. I love the congregation. I even like my congregants.
Let me hasten to interject here — those whom I have met, in person, as well as those who are still pixels on a screen.
What has been the most challenging part of this past 15 months? The harrowing health crisis, the losses to death — and then, almost in the same breath, our sense of isolation from one another.
This year has underscored our basic human needs: for connection, for community and for intimacy.
To quote the Beatles in “Eleanor Rigby”: “Father McKenzie, writing the words to a sermon that no one will hear. No one comes near.”
I understand Father McKenzie. Though I have written words to sermons that some (or many) will hear, I know what it means to say that no one comes near. I also know the answer to the question posed in the chorus: “All the lonely people — where do they all come from?”
So, let me put this out there for you.
There is alone — and there is lonely.
There is nothing wrong with — and many things right with — being alone. Hitbodedut, solitude, is a necessary component of the Jewish spiritual life. Our great biblical heroes did “alone” pretty well — Jacob, left on his own to wrestle with a nameless stranger; Moses, standing alone before the burning bush; Elijah, alone in the midst of idolatry; God, alone in the heavens.
Come to think of it: Many great spiritual heroes, across religious traditions, spent significant time alone. Yes, Moses — and also Jesus, the desert monks, Buddha.
I have often meditated upon these words of the poet Zalman Shneur:
It is good for a person to be once on their own.
No book, no friend, no community, not a soul,
Just that person with the heart all alone,
It is good for a person to be once on his own.
And it’s good to leave behind all that was found,
No house, no field, not required, not bound,
Just listen to one’s heart and be deaf to all that’s around,
It is good to leave behind all we have found.
Listen to your heart — in your life you will know
You’ll know what there is and feel what you owe.
So, alone — good.
But that is not the same as being lonely.
The state of being alone can bring spiritual life; the state of being lonely can bring spiritual death.
The first thing that God creates that is not “good” is loneliness — existential and physical solitude. “It is not good for man (human beings) to be alone.”
In his crucial essay “The Lonely Man of Faith,” the great Orthodox thinker Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik wrote these immortal words:
I am lonely. Let me emphasize, however, that by stating “I am lonely” I do not intend to convey to you the impression that I am alone. I, thank God, do enjoy the love and friendship of many. I meet people, talk, preach, argue, reason; I am surrounded by comrades and acquaintances. And yet, companionship and friendship do not alleviate the passional experience of loneliness which trails me constantly. I am lonely because at times I feel rejected and thrust away by everybody, not excluding my most intimate friends, and the words of the Psalmist “my father and my mother have forsaken me” quite often ring in my ears.
Not only spiritual death. In his book “Lost Connections,” the British-Swiss writer Johann Hari writes about medical studies that compare the fates of those who are connected to others, and those who are lonely.
Another scientist, Lisa Berkman, had followed both isolated and highly connected people over nine years, to see whether one group was more likely to die than the other. She discovered that isolated people were two to three times more likely to die during that period. Almost everything became more fatal when you were alone: cancer, heart disease, respiratory problems.
A good friend died this past year. True — he had numerous health challenges. But we all knew what should have been on his death certificate: loneliness.
What is the cure for loneliness?
It is not only that we spend time with each other — which the current abating of the pandemic is, slowly, making possible.
It is that we spend time within each other — and within something that is larger than us.
What is that “thing” that is larger than us?
A narrative. A story. A story that started before you got here, and a story that will exist after you are here — and the knowledge that your life has a role in that unfolding story.
Which brings me back to our religious institutions. Or, rather, it is what brings us all back into our religious institutions.
Let me speak Jewishly. My gentile readers are free to insert their own meanings here; I believe that they are pretty much generic.
When we reenter our sanctuaries, we are not only reentering buildings. We are reentering the story of the Jewish people. Our sense of belonging is not just about belonging to this nation, the Jewish people; but belonging with this nation, the Jewish people.
So, yes — welcome back into the sanctuary. Welcome your old friends again. But know that in so doing, you are bearing witness to the resiliency of the Jewish people, of its institutions — and yes, of its story.
Nothing wrong with being alone every so often. Thoreau did it just fine.
Lonely is a killer.