Friday, September 15, 2006

A Lonely Judgment

A Lonely Judgment

R. Dovid Gottlieb
(Rosh Hashanah 5765 - 8-16-04)

“The nature of the dilemma can be stated in a three word sentence. 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 friendship and love of many.”

These are the opening words of Rav Soloveitchik’s classic essay, The Lonely Man of Faith. First published in the journal Tradition in 1965, the passage of almost 40 years has done nothing to dull the incisive and illuminating character of this work. Focusing not on abstract theological dilemmas or philosophical quandaries that are the usual staple of religious writing, Rav Soloveitchik instead concentrates on the inner experience of the religious personality. Not only are the insights he develops still timely, they are really timeless.

What is the difference between being alone and being lonely?

Click here to read moreThe Mishnah (Rosh Hashnah 1:2) tells us that on Rosh Hashanah: kol bu’iy ha-olam ovrin lefanav kibnei maron – all mankind pass before Him, all are judged like “bnei maron.” But what are “bnei maron”? The Gemara (18a) itself explores the precise meaning of this obscure and ambiguous phrase. Three explanations are suggested, although all of them are also a bit unclear and require Rashi’s elucidation. The first suggestion is “kivnei imrana” – like a flock of sheep which are herded one by one as they are counted. This image is, of course, familiar to us from the “U’nesaneh Tokef” prayer – “kivakaras ro’eh edro, ma’avir tzono tachas shivto.”

The second explanation is “ke-ma’alos beis maron” – a narrow ascent traversable by only one person at a time. And the final explanation offered: “ke-chayalos shel beis Dovid” – as soldiers passing, single file, before the king for his inspection before they go off to battle.

The common thread running through all of these explanations is, clearly, that we are each judged individually on Rosh Hashanah. Whether we are compared to the sheep passing in front its owner, a traveler on a narrow path, or a soldier examined by his ruler, the theme remains the same: we are judged as individuals. And yet, in each of these examples, we are not in solitude – there are other sheep, there are fellow travelers, and there are additional soldiers. Why use images of a larger group if the point is to illustrate the individualistic nature of the judgment of Rosh Hashanah?

The answer to this question is critical not only to our appreciation of Rosh Hashanah but also speaks to a deeper understanding of who we are as individuals and our relationship with those around us.

Rav Soloveitchik explains that aloneness is a physical fact. When one is removed from the company of others he or she is alone. Loneliness, on the other hand, is not a physical reality but a spiritual one. It is an existential awareness of our ultimate uniqueness and disconnectedness from others. These are two very different realities. As the Rav says (Family Redeemed, p. 15), “One may stand at Times Square where hundreds of people pass by every minute and yet feel very lonely.” On the other hand, “one may find oneself, in terms of distance, in seclusion, very remote from people, without feeling lonely.” Furthermore, Rav Soloveitchik explains (Lonely Man, p. 40) that when the Torah tell us “lo tov heyos hadam levado” it is not referring to being alone, but rather, counseling against prolonged loneliness.

We sit in shul on Rosh Hashanah surrounded by multitudes of other people; in many cases with beloved family and dear friends. We are surely not alone in judgment. But ultimately it is a lonely judgment. No one else knows everything that we have done wrong or right over the past year. No one else knows if we have failed to live up to our potential or whether we have surpassed it. And no one else knows if our spirituality has been enhanced or diminished since last Rosh Hashanah. Ultimately, we stand before the Ribbono Shel Olam for our own private Day of Judgment.

Perhaps this is the meaning of “kivnei maron.” There may be other sheep, there may be other travelers, and there may be other soldiers, but no two are the same. We may not be alone, but it is surely a lonely judgment.

This distinction may also explain what appears, at first glance, to be the very mean spirited comments of Elkanah to Chana. Our Haftorah famously recounts Chana’s fervent prayers for a child. Upon witnessing her tears, Elkana asks: “What’s so bad – halo anochi tov lach mei’asarah banim” – you have me? On the face of it, this appears to be cruel and obtuse. But perhaps the explanation is that Elkana misunderstood – as many of us do – the difference between being alone and being lonely. He couldn’t understand Chana’s pain because he was only sensitive to aloneness. So he tells her: “You’re not alone. I am with you and I love you.” But what he didn’t understand was that while Chana was not alone, she was lonely. There was something missing from her life without a child. There was a spiritual void then he couldn’t fill.

It is crucial that understand the different sides of this coin. There is a lot of loneliness in the world. Some of it is relatively benign or temporary. But much of it is very profound and lasting. It may be a recent widow or widower who after many years of marriage has just lost their beloved spouse. Or it could be someone who is single and still looking for their beloved. Or a couple whose relationship has turned stale and lost its passion; or an adult who has just become orphaned. The loneliness felt by many people in these and other situations is often indescribable. They may have other people in their lives – parents, grandparents, siblings, nieces, nephews – but if they are missing that person or people who would complete them, then even though they are not alone, they are very lonely.

As a community we must do everything we can do to help alleviate the pain of this loneliness. Each situation requires its own individualized approach. The needs of a recent widow are obviously very different than a husband who feels distant from his wife. They are both lonely and both need our help. Each one of us, rabbi and congregant, male and female, old and young, has a role to play. This is a critical component of the type of “community of caring” which we hope accurately describes us. Lo alecha ha’melachah ligmor, v’lo atah ben chorin livatel memenah. No one person can do it all but that doesn’t free us from our responsibility.

But there is another lesson which is just as important for us to learn. Being alone isn’t necessarily to be frowned upon. Of course, taken to an extreme, by choice or otherwise, being removed from other people can be harmful. The permanent hermit’s life should not be romanticized. But it also true that, as Rav Soloveitchik commented, being alone doesn’t necessarily mean someone is lonely. In fact, there are some blessings that can be attained with greater likelihood when we are alone. Remember, the transformative event in Yaakov’s life took place when he was alone: “va’yivaser Yaakov levado.” It was when he was alone, in the dark of night, that he was transformed from one who hung onto the heal of another into one who embodied the destiny of others.

This is an especially important lesson for us in our increasingly “communications based” world.

Rav Mendel of Rimanov used to say that it was a black day for the world the day they paved the roads. After all, it used to be that you were traveling but when it got dark you had to stop for the night. Once a person stopped he could use that time for reflection, tefillah, or learning. Now that the roads are paved no one has to stop; they can keep on traveling through the night.

What would Rav Mendel say about us? We are literally living in a new world. It wasn’t that long ago that faxes were a great novelty. Now we have cell phones, email, and cell phones with email. There used to be limits; places where you couldn’t be reached. No more. The slogan for the air phones – phones that can be used on airplanes – says it all: “now even the sky is not the limit.” I am not arguing that these are bad things per se. I wouldn’t go as far as Rav Mendel. The advantages that many of these devices provide are really meaningful. I utilize these very technologies. But we must be aware of their downside. It’s not all “progress.” We so rarely have time to think about life or even reflect on previous events.

Most importantly, being alone is often the best way to truly understand who we really are. Some people are simply not comfortable being with themselves. We are in such a rush to speak with or be connected to other people that we often forget how to connect with ourselves. How tragic. I remember, almost 15 years ago, when my rebbe in Yeshivat Shaalavim, Rav Michoel Yamer, decried the invention of the shower radio – now you don’t even have to be alone with yourself in the shower.

But if we are never alone how do we know who we really are? How do we know where the community ends and we begin? Periodic solitude can be not only healthy, but transformative and provide opportunity for renewal.

The late Anthony Storr, a noted British psychoanalyst wrote a book in 1988 on this very topic, called Solitude: A Return to Self. Storr cites many anecdotes to buttress his thesis that recent thinking and cultural trends have too much to the extreme and overemphasized the need socialization. One of the most fascinating episodes he cites are the reflections of Admiral Byrd, who single handedly manned an advanced weather base in Antarctica during winter of 1934. Byrd kept a diary in which he recounts that he actually insisted on doing it alone. He was not looking to “escape” or run away from any difficult personal situation. He describes his personal situation as being “incredibly happy.” So why did his volunteer for such an assignment? He writes that it was just “one man’s desire to know that kind of experience to the full, to be by himself for a while and to taste peace and quiet and solitude long enough to find how good they really are . . . I wanted something more than just privacy in the geographical sense. I wanted to sink roots into some replenishing philosophy.” (I thank R. Jacob J. Schacter for bringing this book to my attention.)

I am obviously not advocating going off to Antarctica for a few months. There are other, less extreme, ways to achieve this result. But this is an important goal to have and a vital lesson to remember. Admiral Byrd was totally alone but he was not lonely in the slightest. His aloneness provided a singular opportunity for self reflection and renewal.

And isn’t that one of the critical themes of Yamim Noraim? This is the time dedicated to renewal. And in order to do that we must find a way to get in touch with our true selves. A little time alone might just be the trick.

May the coming year be one of blessing and success and, perhaps most importantly, spiritual rebirth, rejuvenation, and renewal.

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