Responding to Loneliness
Erev Rosh Hashanah 5781/2020
Rabbi Cassi Kail
It’s been six months since the first stay-at-home orders were issued in Los Angeles county. Many of us forget what friends and family look like without zoom boxes around their heads, or facemasks covering their noses and mouths. We work on zoom. We learn on zoom. We pray on zoom, and we gather socially on zoom. We celebrate birthdays and anniversaries with car parades and video montages. Social in-person gatherings are few and far between, if they exist at all. Some of us are lucky enough to live close to the people we love. Even in these circumstances, Covid-19 distances us in ways we have never before experienced. All in-person gatherings, from our doctor’s appointments, to the work we conduct, to visits with dear friends, are limited by our desire to stay healthy, and to ensure that those around us stay safe as well.
These restrictions can make us feel lonely.
On Rosh Hashanah it is traditional to read the story of creation. God said, “Let there be light,” and the light that formed was good. God produced water and sky, and that, too, was good. After each creation, from the plants and trees, to the animals of land, sea and sky, God says that they were good. God calls the creation of human beings “very good.” But after God’s handiwork was complete, God remarks that there is one thing that is not good at all. “It is not good for man to be alone.”[i]
One rabbinic tale teaches that when God created the world, God paraded every pair of animals in front of Adam for him to name. Two long necked animals walked in front of Adam and he called them giraffes. When two black and white striped animals walked before Adam, he called them zebras. After Adam named all of the species, he asked God, “What about me, everyone has a partner, but I do not?”[ii] Adam’s question expressed a feeling of loneliness, that many of us know all too well. So did our ancestors. Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Isaac, Jacob, Leah, Joseph, and Moses all express a deep, existential loneliness at some point in their lives, and most of them didn’t live through a pandemic.
As it turns out, loneliness was an epidemic well before the coronavirus. According to a study through Cigna, nearly two thirds of Americans struggled with loneliness in 2019, a 13% increase from 2018.[iii]
Political scientist Robert Putnam explains that loneliness has increased for a reason. Since the 1960’s, we have moved from the “we” society of “we’re all in this together,” to the “I” society of “I’m free to be myself.” This is reflected in the lyrics of the music we hear,[iv] and the words of the books we read.[v] We have become a society focused more on the individual than the communal. One of the losses of communal attachment is that of social isolation.[vi]
There is a story about a man who wrote to the Rebbe from a place of pain and hardship. He said, “I am depressed. I am lonely. I feel that life is meaningless. I try to pray, but the words do not come. I keep mitzvot but find no peace of mind. I need the Rebbe’s help.”
He, like Adam, expressed profound loneliness, and a longing for deeper connection. That is after all, what loneliness is, an expression of spiritual and emotional isolation,[vii] a yearning to be seen, heard, and embraced, and a longing to feel the deepness of sacred relationship.
The Rebbe sent a brilliant reply without using a single word. He simply circled the first word of every sentence and sent the letter back. The word in each case was “I.”
There is a reason that God said, “It is not good for man to be alone.” God knew that human beings are innately social. Although it is healthy and natural to spend some time alone[viii], we also need opportunities for sacred connection. We are happiest, healthiest, and most fulfilled when we turn our “I’s” into “We’s.”
When our temple building temporarily closed, we recognized how isolating the pandemic could be. On the phone, many of you opened up about how terrifying it was to live alone in the midst of a pandemic – how surreal it was to conduct business, social gatherings, and interactions through technology alone.
American society might be focused on the individual, but Judaism has always centered around community. We study Torah together. We pray together. We come together to at times of joy and times of sorrow, for holidays and sacred occasions.
So when the pandemic hit, it was not surprising that our community came together. In a matter of days, we transformed our Torah school into a virtual school. We struggled with technology so that we could worship and learn together. We created zoom-a-thons, scavenger hunts, game nights, coffee talks, and meditation. And we showed up in huge numbers, because we needed one another more than ever. The temple created phone chains and connected community members who needed help with those in a position to offer it. Your response was inspiring. Everyone wanted to help.
Loneliness is not new, but because of the pandemic, we devoted more time than ever to addressing it. This has been a key to our survival for millennia.
Every year we recall the story of our Egyptian bondage, and the exodus that followed. We are taught that slavery was painfully lonely on a personal and communal level. Pharaoh made a concerted effort to separate spouses from one another. Even if they had the desire to connect, Pharaoh worked them so hard that they wouldn’t have enough energy to do so.[ix] Pharaoh hoped that this separation would prevent a new generation from being born. But Israelites did not allow Pharaoh to succeed. A midrash teaches that women risked everything to be with their spouses. They brought mirrors to them, to show them how handsome they were and to arouse them to be intimate. As Rabbi Michael Latz explains, “From that intimacy was born the next generation of Israelites. Our people survived. Humans are social creatures. People need a community, a tribe, like a bee needs a hive. Community, relationships, intimacy were the ultimate resistance to Pharaoh’s tyranny.”
When we are faced with trials and difficulties, our sacred connections are our vaccine. A deep moment of connection can lift us, drive us, and inspire us. They are, as Rabbi Latz explains, “a balm against loneliness. Judaism is the counter-narrative to the myths that perpetuate loneliness through consumerism and individualism. How so? Because we are part of a story of meaning that is bigger than ourselves.”
A few weeks ago, I received a call from a member of our community. She said, “You know, there is a man who lives on my block. I’ve said hi in the past. I look out for him to make sure that he is okay. Because I volunteered to help out, I came to learn that he is a member of our temple! Now that I know, I am having deeper conversations with him. I am so grateful for this opportunity.”
Our temple programs over the past six months have brought people together. Our phone trees have sparked new friendships. Random breakout rooms after services fostered new connections. Programs such as Elul reflections have enabled congregants to share their stories and get to know people they had never before had a chance to meet.
For the first time, congregants who live far away, or who are unable to leave their homes because of their schedule, health, or mobility, can still fully participate in temple life. In fact, due to new partnerships we have formed, our High Holy Day services are easily accessible to people in neighborhood hospitals and nursing homes for the very first time.
Several people have expressed that they feel closer to our Temple community than they ever have before. “The temple is in my home every day,” one said. “I never celebrated Havdalah every week,” said another. “Now I can’t imagine missing it.”
The irony of this pandemic that pulled us apart is that like the Israelites in Egypt, we have responded by coming closer together. Loneliness has been an epidemic for decades, and yet it took a pandemic for us to take it seriously. In March the House of Representatives passed the Supporting Older Americans Act of 2020, which included provisions to address social isolation.[x] Nonprofits of all kinds have begun providing remote resources. We are talking about our loneliness and isolation in ways we have not always been comfortable doing. And it is making a difference.
American Psychologist conducted a loneliness study on adults ages 18-98. It began back in January, before we felt the true effects of the pandemic, and it continued for several months. The study showed that respondents felt more social and emotional support in April and May than they did back in January. A similar study came to the same conclusion.
Loneliness remains an epidemic, but there is promise. As reporter Kasley Killam explains, “If these trends continue, the social recession we feared could turn out to be a social revolution. Ironically, the pandemic may catalyze a cultural shift in which neighborhoods and communities band together to enhance our social well-being. In short, it’s possible that a symptom of the coronavirus pandemic could become a cure for the loneliness epidemic.[xi] For all of its death and destruction, this moment of time has gifted us with an incredible opportunity to focus on that which is most important in our lives: the relationships we build.
Now is the time that we affirm that your presence matters. It makes a difference that you overcome the challenges of technology to be here today. It makes a difference when you volunteer or when you ask for help. It makes a difference that you join Torah school, cantor’s corner, Torah study, or our social hour.
At this strange moment in Jewish history, I invite you to follow in the footsteps of our Israelite ancestors and strive to forge new connections. They are the lifeforce of our people. They are what has sustained us all these years.
Today is a day to commit to community. Not a member? We’d love to have you! Need help with groceries? Let us help you, as you have been there for so many others before. Willing to help? Let us know so that we can connect you to new friends. On our website you’ll find a list and description of all of our temple groups and committees. We’d love for you to join one. There are phenomenal sisterhood and MENsch club events, starting with social virtual sukkah nights in early October, where you can see old friends and make new ones.
We recently started a new initiative called community connections. Thanks to the work of the Open Tent Project, we figured out which neighborhoods congregants live in, and created small pods for neighbors to get to know one another. Throughout the year, there will be opportunities to get to know the people in your pod. I hope you will join in. Let us all turn our “I’s” into “We’s.”
God was right. It’s not good for man to be alone. Fortunately, we’re not alone. We have one another.
[i] Genesis 2:18
[ii] Bereishit Rabbah 17:4
[iv] In 2011, Nathan Dewall of the University of Kentucky studied the lyrics of top-ten pop songs between 1980 and 2007. He discovered that the first person plural pronouns (we, us, our) have declined, and that first person singular pronouns (I, me, mine) have increased steadily over that time period. He concluded that this reflected an overall cultural shift from the communal to the personal.
[v] In preparation for his new book Morality, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks studied the use of “we” and “I” in English and American books that were published between 1900 and 2008. He discovered that while the use of the word “we” has remained stable over time, the word “I” has steadily increased since 1965.
[vi] Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Morality: Restoring Common Good in Distorted Times. (New York, Hatchette Book Group, 2020), p.24.
[vii] See Rabbi Mark Katz The Heart of Loneliness: How Jewish Wisdom Can Help You Cope and Find Comfort, (Nashville: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2016), Introduction.
[viii] It is okay to be alone. In fact, many of us recharge by spending time alone meditating, or reading, going for walks, or doing hobbies. Rabbi Nachman of Brozlov encourages everyone to spend time alone each day, in thought and in prayer.
[ix] Rashi on Exodus 38:8