Alone, but not alone

Alone, but not alone

Temple Emeth, Teaneck, Reform

There are two moments when our patriarch Jacob is profoundly alone.

The first is in this week’s Torah portion, Vayetze, when, fleeing his brother’s murderous intentions, he must stop for the night on the way to taking refuge in his uncle’s household.

The second is in next week’s Torah portion, when, 20 years later, he makes the trip in reverse.

The first scene in Vayetze shows Jacob as a young man. It is likely his first time away from his parents’ household. He has to sleep, so he uses a rock as a pillow. And when he sleeps, he dreams. The dream is of a ladder or stairway leading to heaven with angels ascending and descending on it. Within this dream, God promises to return him to this land. When Jacob awakes, he declares, “Surely the Eternal is in this place, and I did not know it.”

The scene for his second experience of solitude is markedly different. By this time, he has four wives, a dozen children, and numerous livestock. For their protection he separates them into two camps, and then finds himself alone. He wrestles a mysterious being. The Torah refers to him only as a man, though we understand him to be an angel. When the wrestling contest ends in a draw, Jacob says, “I have seen a divine being face to face.”

In both of these stories, Jacob is alone, but he is not alone. God is there to protect or challenge him. God is there to be present and offer blessing. The text never says if Jacob felt alone, but if he did, he was mistaken, because both times he would learn by the end of the night that God was with him.

In each of these Genesis stories, Jacob is alone for only one night. And as mentioned above, he felt the presence of God.

That is not the case for countless Americans, who live alone or have no meaningful contact with other people. Loneliness, research has shown, can be a dispiriting emotional state, so much so that it has measured impacts on our health and wellbeing. The surgeon general of the United States issued a report in May on the devastating health impacts of persistent loneliness and isolation. In it, he writes, “The mortality impact of being socially disconnected is similar to that caused by smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day, and even greater than that associated with obesity and physical inactivity.”

And it is a bitter irony that social distancing measures meant to protect our physical health during the coronavirus pandemic simultaneously harmed our mental health.

Alarmed by this report, Dr. Ruth Westheimer, best known as a sex therapist, was recently appointed to be New York State’s loneliness ambassador. The role seems perfect for her. She was an only child and last saw her parents when she was 10 years old and boarded a train to escape the Nazis as part of the Kindertransport. She felt disconnected from the people in her children’s home in Switzerland and later when she lived on a kibbutz. For decades, fostering good relationships has been her life’s work, and in her new role she wants to bash the stigma of loneliness.

Since October 7, a different kind of loneliness has been described on social media. Since war broke out, numerous people have written about feeling isolated because the people around them do not support Israel or condemn antisemitism.

I found respite from this feeling—for a day at least—in Washington on November 14. On the National Mall, an estimated 300,000 supporters of Israel gathered. Yes, we made a political statement in support of Israel. I appreciated the speeches, the songs, and the chants. But most impactful on me at that moment was the sense that I was not alone. There were so many others who felt the same way.

It may be true that like Jacob, we are always in the presence of God, even when we lack the company of other people. But as a caring community, we must also acknowledge that for many, that is not enough. Loneliness is a problem, but thankfully the Jewish community has the tools to address it. Every synagogue welcomes newcomers to participate in services, classes, and social events. Advocacy organizations seek volunteers to work together to advance their agenda for the good of the Jewish people. And Jewish Family and Children’s Services have resources so that people who are isolated can feel a sense of connection. It will take all of us to ensure that these resources are used to combat loneliness.

In Parashat Vayetze, Jacob’s brief time alone ends with him being welcomed by his uncle and eventually marrying and having children. Our paths do not always follow Jacob’s. Knowing the health dangers of loneliness, we can each play a role in reaching out to others. And you don’t have to be an angel. You just have to be someone who cares enough to bring meaning and connection to someone else’s life.

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