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