D'vrei Torah by Rabbi Ellie Shemtov
Rosh Hashanah morning 5781
I’m so lonesome I could cry – Hank Williams
Hear the lonesome whippoorwill
He sounds too blue to fly
The midnight train is whining low
I’m so lonesome I could cry
In the 1960 Billy Wilder movie classic, The Apartment, C. C. Baxter played by Jack Lemmon, is a New York office drone with a bad cold. As a way to climb the corporate ladder, Baxter lends his apartment to his superiors so they can cheat on their wives. In the meantime, lonely Baxter pursues Fran Kubelik his office building’s elevator operator played by Shirley MacLaine, oblivious to the fact that she is the woman his own boss has been meeting in Baxter’s apartment.
The feelings of loneliness Baxter experiences are laid bare throughout the film and in a poignant moment, Fran Kubelik asks him if he eats alone. Gesturing to the television set, Baxter responds (and remember this is 1960), “No, sometimes I eat with Ed Sullivan.”
Let’s face it, loneliness has been with us as far back as the book of Genesis when God saw Adam by himself and said: It is not good for man to be alone. (Gen. 2:18).
But, while loneliness is often defined as a state of solitude or being by yourself, it can also be viewed as a state of mind. In other words, it isn’t necessarily about being alone. You can still feel alone in a room filled with people. On the flip side, many of us seek out solitude -- feel whole in solitude. Perhaps that’s why we are here in Vermont.
Loneliness can be situational – happening when one moves to a new city, leaves a relationship, loses a job, or when a loved one dies. But, feeling alone can also be chronic, when those feelings of loneliness and isolation don’t seem to go away.
Reb Nachman of Bratslav would often escape into the forest to commune with God in a process he called Hitbodedut, which translates as self-seclusion, and he was perfectly content. He even wrote about it. Since the beginning of the pandemic and our switch to Zoom Shabbat services, we read aloud and reflect every week on Reb Nachman’s prayer which begins:
Grant me the ability to be alone; may it be my custom to go outdoors each day among the trees and grass - among all growing things and there may I be alone, and enter into prayer, to talk with the One to whom I belong
Throughout much of Europe’s recorded history it was assumed that ultimate happiness was not to be expected from human relationships and institutions, but could only be found in man’s relation with the divine. In fact, many of the devout in Europe’s history believed that human relationships were an obstacle to communion with God. The founders of the monastic movement were the hermits of the Egyptian desert whose ideal of perfection was only to be achieved through a solitary life of contemplation.
While Judaism emphasizes public prayer, it also as in the example of Reb Nachman, encourages private prayer. The person who prays in private feels him or herself to be alone in the presence of God. Prayer is undertaken not with the intention of influencing God, but in order to produce a harmonious state of mind. In order to pray privately one needs the capacity to be alone if the brain is to function at its best, and if the individual is to fulfill his or her highest potential. But, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote: modern man has not only forgotten how to be alone; he finds it even difficult to be with his fellow man.
The British historian Edward Gibbon once wrote: Conversation enriches the understanding, but solitude is the school of genius. If you are a writer, a painter or sculptor, you have experienced what it means to be alone. Man is certainly a social being, and while interpersonal relationships are often considered the main or even the only source of human happiness, the lives of creative individuals often seem to run counter to this assumption.
This emphasis on intimate interpersonal relationships as the touchstone of health and happiness is a somewhat recent phenomenon. Earlier generations were preoccupied more with staying alive and earning a living to have much time to devote to the subtleties of personal relations.
John Bowlby, in his important work Attachment and Loss, concluded that from a biological point of view attachment behavior originated as a way to seek protection from predators. An isolated animal is more likely to be attacked by predators than one that stays together in a group. In humans of course, the attachment children have to parents is essential if the child is to survive. At the same time, most parents try to ensure their children have plenty of opportunity to encounter and play with other children.
Much has been written on the fear of being alone or the wish to be alone and less about the ability to be alone. All of us as human beings have an inner world of fantasy and imagination which is as important as interpersonal relationships in giving meaning to our lives. It’s part of what makes us human. Not surprisingly, this imaginative capacity tends to become particularly highly developed in gifted individuals who for whatever reason had solitary childhoods. Children who are isolated often invent imaginary companions or invent stories in which a variety of imaginary persons take part. Development of an imaginary world can sometimes serve as a retreat from unhappiness, a companion for loss, and a basis for later creative achievement.
In Judaism we experience being alone in the mourning process. When mourning a loved one it is traditional to except for a daily visit to the synagogue, stay at home while others feed and care for us. Coming to terms with loss is a difficult, painful, and largely solitary process which could be delayed if faced with distractions. Coming to terms with the loss of a loved one is essentially private because it is so much concerned with intimacies which were not, and could not be shared with others when the deceased partner was alive.
But, whether we each enjoy solitude or prefer being with others, when we experience separation we experience pain. When we experience unity we experience happiness.
These past seven months have challenged us in many ways, including dealing with loneliness or being alone. We’ve been challenged in ways we never expected. Even those of us who enjoy solitude, don’t necessarily want it 24/7 and those of us who thrive on being around others have been challenged to find ways to be alone. The bottom line is we’ve all been experiencing deprivation when it comes to our social lives and we all respond to it in our own unique ways. We may be lonely and some of us may enjoy solitude but we all need connection.
In her book The Anatomy of Loneliness, Teal Swan writes how separation is one of the pillars of loneliness. But it’s only a pillar of loneliness as long as we believe we are separate. If we instead picture God or source or however we understand God—if we can visualize that God is all there is – if we can stretch our minds to imagine a consciousness that has no beginning or end; that we are each a droplet in the ocean; then perhaps we can conceive that there is nothing that is not God.
The single biggest threat to our survival is not starvation, or thirst or exposure. The single biggest threat to our survival is isolation and fear is the number one most isolating experience on the planet. The more fearful we are, the more alone we are.
Pandemic or not, we are all One. I know it doesn’t feel that way. We listen to the news or watch the news and we hear how divided we are as a country and it’s fear that divides us. The truth is we are all connected. And if we cannot give each other a hug; shake each other’s hands; or look deeply into each other’s eyes, it’s important to not isolate for too long. It’s important to reach out.
I have spent considerable time these last seven months focused –no that’s not the right word – I have spent these last seven months obsessed with how we can stay connected as a community. I worry constantly about how to maintain those connections when we can’t touch each other; when we can’t sit close to each other; when we can’t break bread with each other.
But I believe in many ways we have stayed connected; perhaps not in the ways we would like; perhaps not in the numbers we would like, but we have. We don’t need to be isolated. The warm weather has helped and winter will challenge us again but we can do it. We can rid ourselves of fear and isolation. We can learn to be alone and not feel lonely. We can utilize our imaginations and dream up all kinds of ways to feel connected. We can take a song about loneliness and turn it into a song about hope:
I’m so Lonesome I could cry (reprise)
The silence of a falling star Lights up a purple sky
And as I wonder where you are I’m so lonesome ……. I could cry….. (UH UH! How about…)
(I’m alone but close nearby) or (You are there and so am I)
L’Shana Tova u-m’tukah – Wishing all of you a sweet and happy new year. We all need it.
 Anthony Storr. “Solitude, a Return to the Self” (New York : Free Press, 2005) 91
 Ibid. 39
 Heschel, Abraham Joshua. The Insecurity of Freedom. (Philadelphia : JPS, 1966) 19
 Anthony Storr. “Solitude, a Return to the Self” (New York : Free Press, 2005) 12
 Ibid. 20
 Ibid. 27
 Ibid. 28
 Ibid. 114
 Ibid. 42
 Teal Swan. The Anatomy of Loneliness (London : Watkins, 2018) 22
 Ibid. 30
 Ibid. 97
Rosh Hashanah evening 5781
In a Ted Talk given in Apr. 2017, the author of Denying the Holocaust, historian Dr. Deborah Lipstadt, remarked on the Holocaust’s standing as the most thoroughly documented genocide in the world. If this is true, if the Holocaust is so well-documented, then we should believe the words of the victims—the survivors; we should believe the words of the bystanders—like the Poles who lived in villages and towns around the death camps; and surely we should believe the words of the perpetrators, the ones who at the end said I did it, we did it.
You would think that the most thoroughly documented genocide in the world would put an end to the question: Did the Holocaust really happen? And yet, Holocaust denial is a thing. These individuals and groups often parade themselves around as serious scholars, call themselves “historical revisionists” rather than deniers, and accuse their critics of trying to suppress inquiries into historical truth.
When Dr. Lipstadt called one of these so-called revisionists David Irving, a Holocaust denier, he took her to court. To win her case she traced footnotes from Irving’s writings back to their sources. What she found were altered dates and altered sequences of events. In the end, Lipstadt won her case and Irving was found to be a liar, a racist, and an anti-Semite.
Psychologist Dr. John Grohol defines denial as the refusal to accept reality or fact, acting as if a painful event, thought or feeling did not exist. While a functioning alcoholic will deny they have a drinking problem as a way to rebuff personal failings, a Holocaust denier skews the truth to promote a larger world view, one in which Jews are the bad guys. Denial involves both lying to ourselves and lying to others or as I like to put it, denying is just plain old lying.
But lying or not, denial can in some situations, function as a coping mechanism that gives us time to adjust to difficult circumstances. Soldiers often need to find a way to deny how dangerous war is, or anxiety would undermine them. Denial protects parents from the reality that their children could die for a multitude of reasons. The problem is that the longer we remain in denial the harder it is to overcome. And yes, denial can kill us as well as those for whom we are responsible.
What often drives denial is fear and fear leads to rigid thinking. Even though seat belts have been available for a long time, some drivers deny the thousands of times that seat belts have saved lives, in part because of the possibility they might occasionally trap us in a burning car.
Denial can lead to despair. When we free ourselves of denial, we are able to open our eyes and throw off the despair. We can begin to accept the truth and take responsibility for our predicament. Then we figure out what to do about it.
According to Deborah Lipstadt and many others, we are living through a time where denial is thriving and truth is on the defensive. This notion is expressed in a New Yorker cartoon where the host of a quiz show says to one of the contestants: "Yes, ma'am, you had the right answer. But your opponent yelled more loudly than you did, so he gets the point."
To experience positive change in our lives we need a reason to hope. Hopelessness feeds denial and denial often supports hopelessness. It has been noted that denial of both climate change and the coronavirus has followed a similar pattern:
If you see as I do, the Torah as relevant to our lives today, it will not surprise you to know it is filled with stories of denial, including the portions we read on Rosh Hashanah. Tomorrow morning is the story of Sarah giving birth to Isaac. After many years God’s promise about Abraham and Sarah having a child is finally fulfilled. But it doesn’t take long after Isaac’s birth for the happiness Sarah feels to turn to jealousy and fear. That jealousy and fear is directed towards Ishmael, the son Abraham has with Sarah’s handmaiden, Hagar.
Having difficulty becoming pregnant, Sarah encourages Abraham to have a child with Hagar. But now that she herself has a child, Sarah becomes jealous and encourages Abraham to drive Hagar and Ishmael out into the wilderness, putting their lives in danger. You think maybe Sarah is in denial about her own role in this whole series of events?
The reading for the second day of Rosh Hashanah is one of the more famous stories in the Torah – the Akeidah, the binding of Isaac. God tells Abraham to take his favored son Isaac and offer him as a sacrifice to God. So much has been written about this story but it seems to me at its basic level, Abraham is in complete denial about his son’s imminent death. In the end God doesn’t allow the sacrifice to happen but how many parents would go as far as Abraham did in preparing their child to be sacrificed?
Over the next ten days we will look at denial and how it connects to three other topics that have been on mind for the past seven months – loneliness, freedom and sacrifice.
If we are lonely we can utilize denial as a way to convince ourselves to have a super spreader party and allow ourselves to engage in reckless encounters with others outside our family unit.
If we are proud we can use denial as an argument for preserving our freedom, our civil rights, and not wear a mask, as we interpret the notion of freedom for our own purposes.
If we are scared to make the sacrifices we need to make to power through this pandemic, we can use denial as a reason to not shelter in place and not do what is necessary for the betterment of our society.
Tomorrow morning, we will begin with Loneliness.
L’Shana Tova u-metukah
 Jack Wright. The Psychhology of Denial (CreateSpace, 2013) 125
 Ibid. 59
 Ibid. 133
 Ibid. 98
 Ibid. 105
 Ibid. 779
 Dana Nuccitelli. “Coronavirus Doubters Follow Climate Denial Playbook,” https://yaleclimateconnections.org/2020/04/coronavirus-doubters-follow-climate-denial-playbook/ (Accessed September 2020)
12-Step Torah -- Sukkot 5781
Serenity is not freedom from the storm but peace amid the storm
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are over. We have struggled and we have repented. We have forgiven and we have been forgiven. Having come out of this state of reflection we are now ready to begin the year by turning our introspection outward. We step outside our homes and joyously head into the holiday of Sukkot-- into nature and the Sukkah. Sukkot arrives five days after Yom Kippur and what a difference five days makes.
As Rabbi Michael Cohen writes: “Yom Kippur takes place inside; Sukkot takes place outside. On Yom Kippur we fast; while on Sukkot we feast. On Yom Kippur we pray and study with our minds; for Sukkot we build with our might. On Yom Kippur we hold a book in our hands; on Sukkot with the lulav and etrog we hold nature. On Yom Kippur we are serious and introspective; on Sukkot we are told to be joyful.”
It’s true that this year COVID-19 has intervened to make the contrast between Yom Kippur and Sukkot somewhat less stark. After all, nature has taken on a larger role for many of us since the beginning of the quarantine. Nature has become more often a place to find serenity and peacefulness amidst the Coronavirus storm. At the RJC we even spent part of our High Holy Day services praying outdoors.
Even so, as we enter the sukkah the contrast could hit us like a ton of bricks. For the most part, we spent this Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in our homes rather than in our synagogue and now on Sukkot we leave those homes which offer permanence, and enter a temporary structure, a sukkah where we will eat, talk, read, pray, and sometimes sleep.
Nature has become a more active part of many of our lives these past seven months. While those encounters have in part been a function of being quarantined, Sukkot brings Jewish law into play as we are commanded to dwell in the sukkah for seven days. So, no matter what the world dishes out – and it has been dishing out quite a bit lately —just know that the sukkah can help us find serenity – a serenity that does not so much bring freedom from the storm but rather peace amid the storm.
The RJC sukkah and the sukkah in my backyard (247 Lincoln Ave.) will be open for meals during the Sukkot holiday. A lulav and etrog will also be available at both locations. Contact the office or me (email@example.com or 202-246-5752) to let us know when you want to come.