Rosh HaShanah Day 2 5784 / 2023: "To Be Alone" and to be together
“Winning the lottery was the worst thing that ever happened to me.”
That’s the kind of statement you might expect to hear from someone who has led an extremely charmed life. Like you ask them ‘what’s the worst thing that ever happened to you,” and they say -- “come to think of it, with all the awesome things about my life, winning the lottery was a little disappointing by comparison.” But actually this is a true story. And it’s a sad story. This is what a hospital patient named James said to his doctor when describing the origin of his very significant health problems.
James’ doctor went on to write a book about his experiences. He wrote: James “looked tired as he spoke. His gestures were listless. He seemed defeated by life.” “He was dealing with diabetes, high blood pressure, .....stress…..” And then he shared these surprising words - that winning the lottery had something to do with his medical problems. James’ doctor writes: “ It turned out [James] was being quite literal: he actually had won the lottery. Prior to that.. .he’d been a baker. He was good at his craft, and his customers appreciated his talent. He enjoyed his work and was gratified that the food he prepared gave people happiness and pleasure. ….He was single, [and] he had a community of people he liked. They worked alongside him at the bakery, so he never felt alone. When he won the lottery, all that changed. Suddenly, he was ‘rich,’ so he thought he should upgrade his life. Taking his cue from the messages he’d absorbed from television and movies and advertising… he decided to enter the world of luxury and leisure. He assumed this would make him happier.. . James quit his job and moved to an upscale neighborhood in an oceanside community. There, with all his needs met and a constant stream of money coming in, he was living the proverbial dream.
Yet … this dream felt like a nightmare. Instead of being fulfilled, he was sick and miserable. Previously good-natured, humorous, and outgoing, James grew increasingly withdrawn, isolated, and angry, … …..eventually … diagnosed with the diabetes and high blood pressure that brought him in to see me. Instead of spending time with his bakery colleagues and regular customers, he now visited doctors and otherwise sat alone at home. Too late, James realized that it had been a terrible mistake to do what he thought a lottery winner ought to do, instead of heeding his own heart.”
James’ doctor said he listened carefully, asked questions, adjusted medications, and made a referral to a hospital social worker. But he had truly no idea how he was supposed to help James to address the central problem at the root of his medical difficulties - which was his loneliness and isolation.
James’ story is such a tragic exemplar of the statement found in Pirkei Avot - Ethics of the Fathers - about the definition of wealth: איזהו עשיר השמח בחלקו - who is rich - the one who is happy with what they have. Which really is the only definition of wealth that makes any sense.
You might have heard of James’ doctor. He is Dr Vivek Murthy, Surgeon General of the United States who also served in that role in portions of the Obama and Trump administrations. When he first became surgeon general, he knew he would want to use his position to call attention to important health challenges in the United States, and he expected that he would make an impact by speaking and writing about the cost of medical care, or addiction, or the need for medical research. But as he traveled around the United States he found over and over stories like the story of James that he remembered from earlier in his career -- so much so that he came to regard loneliness and isolation as one of the top medical challenges for American society. A third of Americans report persistent feelings of loneliness; more than half say that no one knows them well. 40% report "they lack companionship," that their "relationships aren't meaningful" and that they feel “isolated from others." One quarter of Americans are estranged from their immediate family.
You might guess that the problem of loneliness is especially acute among the elderly, and you would be correct. But actually it’s younger people among whom these issues are MOST prevalent. In this same study, the percentage of young adults who report feeling lonely almost all the time is 61%. Amid skyrocketing rates of depression and anxiety disorders and tragic deaths of despair, for which loneliness is regarded as an aggravating factor.
This trend was aggravated by the pandemic, but loneliness was recognized as a public health crisis long before -- In Great Britain, it was back in 2018 that a government position was created - a “loneliness minister,” in recognition that loneliness was a UK health emergency - By 2021, there was also a loneliness minister of Japan and various other countries.
If you seek the theme of loneliness in the Torah, you don’t have to look far, because it’s addressed at the very beginning of the Torah - immediately after the creation of the world, whose anniversary according to Jeiwsh tradition is this holiday of Rosh HaShanah.
Over and over, in the account of creation, we read after everything is created, וירא אלקים כי טוב - “God saw that it was good.” And then the first human being is created. But shortly thereafter, for the first time ever in the Torah, the Torah identifies something as לא טוב - not good - And what is that? לא טוב היות האדם לבדו - “it is not good for the person to be alone.” (Genesis 2:8). Aloneness appears to be God’s first dissatisfaction about the created world.
But let’s take a closer look at that word לבדו which means ‘alone.’ There are some words in Hebrew that always have a positive valence or that always have a negative valence. And then there are words where it really depends on the context.
This words levad לבד and בדד badad can refer to a state of abject loneliness, even though a related word, hitbodedut התבודדות, is a very positive word, referring to spending time alone in self-introspection and meditation. Some of the most intense, and intensely positive, moments described in Jewish tradition happened when people were alone. Moses is alone when God calls to him from out of the Burning Bush, and later, Moses ascends by himself to the top of Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. The prophet Elijah is alone when he perceives the קול דממה דקה, God’s still small voice. Being alone is so associated with spiritual insight that the Hasidic master Rebbe Nahman of Breslov’s best known prayer (which is found in our Mahzor on p.37) begins with the words: “God, Grant me the ability to be alone, to go outdoors each day among the trees and grass and other living things… and to talk with the One to whom I belong.”
Depending on the context, being alone can be refreshing and energizing -
but it can also be deflating and terrifying. Dr Murthy points out a distinction between loneliness, on the one hand, and solitude, on the other hand. Solitude is being alone, but in a peaceful way that’s usually voluntary. We are all going to be alone sometimes, and solitude is the ability to be by oneself as an experience of introspection and self-knowledge, and sometimes even greater spiritual depth. In fact, developing comfort with solitude can serve as a protection against loneliness. But this does not mitigate the challenge of loneliness.
Dr Murthy also noticed that some people experienced a sense of shame when they told him that they felt lonely - including people who were very accomplished in their professional fields. Because actually the literature on loneliness notes that there are different kinds of loneliness, so it’s possible to feel lonely even if someone has significant deep connections with others. There’s “intimate loneliness” which is the “longing for a close confidante or intimate partner” who really understands us. “Relational or social loneliness is the yearning for quality friendships.” And there’s “Collective loneliness” which is “hunger for a network or community of people who share your sense of purpose and interests.” All this might explain why someone might have a wonderful marriage and still feel a longing for friendships, or even why someone with a wonderful circle of friends may feel a yearning for this elusive thing called “Community.” And it might explain why I am often talking with couples who have very strong relationships, about the challenges that they have in making friends with other couples.
You may be familiar with the longest running health study ever conducted, which was a longitudinal study of Harvard undergraduates in 1938, and then following up with them every few years for the rest of their lives. Almost all of these subjects are now deceased, but the study yielded a huge amount of information about the aging process and what yields a healthy and happy life. When Dr George Vaillant, director of the study, was asked in 2008 to sum up its most important findings, he said: “That the only thing that really matters in life is your relationships to other people.” And a further summary in 2018 indicates: “Close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives.… and….. help to delay mental and physical decline…
So how did this problem of loneliness come to be? Was it always this way? And how is this issue relevant to us as a synagogue?
In its own way, I think of this as an issue at the very heart of synagogue life.
The last 20 years have brought a precipitous decline in religious affiliation in the United States. Church and synagogue membership and attendance are at their lowest levels in the history of such things being measured. Of course some explain this as a consequence of lack of religious belief, or declining confidence in religious leaders after so many horrifying scandals. All this may be part of the story. But also, these declines in religious affiliation have been accompanied by declines in participation in various other civic institutions. and all kinds of membership organizations, so it’s probably not just about the churches and synagogues.
Almost 25 years ago, Robert Putnam described this phenomenon in his classic book Bowling Alone, in which he noted as emblematic of changes in American communal life, that even though people (in the 1990s) did just as much bowling as they ever did, participation in organized bowling leagues was way way down by the 1990s. We’re more likely to be ‘bowling alone,’ and hiking alone, and golfing alone, and eating alone, and maybe praying alone, rather than doing these things in the context of an organization or a community.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of Great Britain, wrote extensively about this change and actually refers to it as “social climate change.” That over the last half century, most societies around the world have moved even more so from a focus on We to a focus on Me. And the more we are focused on individual experience, the less of a need we think we have for community. But that need for community actually still exists.
It won’t surprise you to hear that rabbis get really concerned about declining membership in synagogues. It happens that at USH we have had pretty steady growth for decades -- most people who leave our congregational life do so because they move out of the area, and we have a steady stream of new people all the time. That’s an amazing blessing, and it’s one of the features of our community that keeps me constantly energized. But - this also means that here in Hoboken, we are not seeing what’s happening in numerous synagogues around the country where membership is declining and synagogues are merging or closing. There are ways in which this is a Jewish question -- we all know that it takes a lot of energy to nurture a minority religious identity, and some people find that it’s just too difficult or not worth the effort. But truly it’s not just a Jewish question. It’s also the Jewish version of a broader societal change - there’s a dramatic decline in religious affiliation and church attendance too, and in membership organizations generally. Christian journalist Jake Meador described the issue this way: “The problem in front of us is not that we have a healthy, sustainable society that doesn’t have room for church. The problem is that many Americans have adopted a way of life that has left us lonely, anxious, and uncertain of how to live in community with other people.”
I am often asking people what values in Judaism they find most appealing. This will come up when I speak with people contemplating conversion, or new parents welcoming a Jewish child, or couples about to get married, and at various other times. When I ask “what Jewish values do you find especially appealing,” often heading the list will be “the priority that Judaism places on family” and “the priority that Judaism places on community.” Now I love it any time anyone says ANYTHING positive about Judaism. So I love these answers - but sometimes I would think: I wonder what I could do to help more people answer this question with more items that are more directly tied to Jewish content itself, like the specific messages of any of the Jewish holidays or any of the values that are specified in the Torah, or the Jewish historical experience. But — maybe I haven’t been giving enough credit to the fact that increasingly, Judaism’s commitment to community is actually refreshingly counter-cultural.
In fact, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has listed a large number of ways that being connected to a religious community is countercultural:
“An extensive survey carried out throughout the United States between 2004 and 2006 showed that frequent church- or synagogue-goers are more likely to give money to charity, regardless of whether the charity is religious or secular.
They are also more likely to do voluntary work for a charity, give money to a homeless person, give excess change back to a shop assistant, donate blood, help a neighbor with housework, spend time with someone who is feeling depressed, …. offer a seat to a stranger, or help someone find a job.…. there was no good deed among the fifteen on the survey more commonly practiced by secular Americans than by their religious counterparts. Religious Americans are simply more likely to give of their time and money to others, not only within but also beyond their own communities.
And Rabbi Sacks goes on to ask: what is it that motivates frequent church and synagogue goers to act like this? -- and there’s research to indicate that it’s probably not religious belief. These people are not necessarily the people who say they are strongest in their religious faith. Rather, they’re the “frequent church- or synagogue-goers.” They are the people who show up. They’re the people who are most committed to community. (And by the way - they also are more likely to report that they are happy -- but that’s a whole different sermon.) This does not mean that there aren’t extraordinary people who are full of kindness and generosity and happiness who are not religiously affiliated. Obviously there are, including so many who are adjacent to our synagogue community and many of our families. But yes, a goal of a religious community is to specialize in helping people to develop deep and authentic connections, to be truly seen and to truly see others, so it doesn’t surprise me that religiously affiliated people are more likely to orient their lives towards others.
One hundred years ago this year, the Jewish theologian Martin Buber wrote an amazing and influential book called Ich und Du, or in English, I and Thou. It was his effort to describe in contemporary language what the Jewish mystical tradition prioritizes in connections between people. The language of this little book is difficult but the core idea is very simple. There are two ways in which a person can interact with their surroundings: Through an I-It relationship, or through an I-Thou relationship.
An I-It relationship is a relationship with an object. For example: I'm standing at this table; it's performing a specific function for me - holding up my notes. I care about it to the extent that it fulfills this function for me. But it's possible to have an I-It relationship with a person as well. Let's say I take an Uber. The driver will perform a specific function for me - to drive me where I need to go, maybe turn up the a/c if I ask. As long as the driver performs this function correctly for me, I may care very little about the driver’s problems, crises, dreams and hopes, and I might even forget that these even exist. And frankly the driver cares about me to the extent that I tip and give a 5-star rating. That’s a mutual I-It relationship. It’s an instrumental relationship. That’s not a bad thing - but it’s different from the other kind of relationship, which is the I-Thou relationship, which is experienced with the entire being, when I look at another person and perceive that person's humanity, recognizing that this person is a human being, just as I am, with needs, crises, dreams and hopes. I even anticipate some of these or supportively inquire about them. In Buber's thought, when we enter into an I-Thou relationship, we get a taste of how God sees us - and how we are seen by God.
We can’t have I-Thou relationships with everyone. but every time we encounter another person, that's a potential I-Thou relationship. And yes, part of our purpose as a synagogue is to be a place where these relationships happen. We have part of our mission statement painted onto the facade of our building outside - the original Hebrew name of our synagogue, Kochav Yisrael, is preceded on our building by the Hebrew letters ‘kuf kuf,’ standing for ‘kehilah kedoshah’ - ‘holy community.’ We strive to help people live lives of holiness, and we strive to help people to live lives of connection to each other.
Synagogues have as their goal to be the place where people truly get seen. Every synagogue in the world is a successor institution to the Temple in Jerusalem that was built on Mount Moriah, about which we read in today’s torah portion, בהר ה’ יראה - on the mountain of Adonai you will be seen.
Dr Murthy and other writers about loneliness have various suggestions for addressing and mitigating it -- suggestions for people who are lonely, and suggestions for people who share the world with people who are lonely (which includes all of us). These include volunteering, prioritizing relationships with others, and growing in comfort with solitude. And -- our synagogue is also an ingredient in the answer. Our goal is to make a place for every individual here. To have every person who visits our synagogue to meet many new people, and to have conversations that are as deep and enduring as you want them to be. From the first time I set foot in this community I knew that this is a place that is radically non-pretentious, and really interested in helping people to be seen and heard and to be understood and connected.
For our community to be a place where deep connections are formed is as important a role as ever. And we are also aware of our community’s growth edges. I have a mentor who likes to say that of course every religious community creates events and opportunities for people to gather -- but the magic of a religious community really happens in small groups, when you get a small group of maybe 10-20 people together who really get to know each other and connect with each other, celebrate with each other and joyous times and support each other at times of challenge. When that happens, synagogue communities are even more life-transforming. That often happens in our community - many of us in this room know that and have been transformed by such experiences. But we need it to happen more systematically. In addition to offering the outstanding events and programs and performances and meaningful services and life cycle events - we know we can more consciously connect individuals and families in our community with each other, in small gatherings which are just as likely to meet in people’s homes, or in coffee shops or parks, as at the synagogue. And we’re hoping that you’ll participate in our small group initiatives about which you’ll hear more soon and that it will help you to feel more deeply and authentically connected.
Repeatedly in our high holy day services we repeat the words ויעשו כולם אגודה אחת לעשות רצונך בלבב שלם -- let everyone form one bundle to do God’s will with a whole heart. May this new year 5784 be a year of community and connection, a year of being seen and being heard. May it be a year we truly experience together.