Lonely together

While “deserted gates” paints the visual picture, this solitude extends beyond the physical reality and into the allegorical psychological state of the mournful city and its inhabitants.

August 8, 2019 10:27
Lonely together

‘WHEN SUFFERING pain there can be a devastating sense that there is “no pain like my own” (Eicha 1:12).’. (photo credit: TNS)

I love my alone time.

It is my exhilarating time to think. It gives me the ability to read and transport myself. It fills me with a joy of exploration and wonder. In short, it feeds my soul. My alone time is often the guilty pleasure of hearing my own breath and remembering that I am alive within all that is happening around me. This experience modulates my parenting, work and technology-filled life. That said, it’s a sensation quite different from feeling lonely. Loneliness emerges from a disjointed connection to others with an unrequited desire for it nonetheless, a rejection of sorts. If I want or need support and cannot find it, the terrible sinking feeling of loneliness rears its head.

In fact, the creation narrative in Genesis includes the positive summary of each day’s accomplishments where God declares His handiwork “tov,” good. As God places Adam in the Garden of Eden amid the lush natural world, God sees and declares Adam’s loneliness as “lo tov,” not good. The simplicity of these contrasting statements is powerful. There is no equivocation. God’s satisfaction of a job well done in creating the Sun, Moon and stars of the sky is met with an equal and opposite sense of dissatisfaction in understanding the predicament of Adam’s loneliness and introducing the words lo tov into this world. This revelation of God pinpointing something lo-tov in His own universe is the first challenge to the world’s order and the first amendment to creation. Loneliness, in short, is the first expression of opportunity for improvement.

The undesirability of loneliness in Genesis becomes so compelling that the 17th-century English poet John Milton imagines a conversation in which God, too, questions whether He should remain as a solitary God, ready to upturn the entire conception of monotheism to avoid his newly discovered valuation of loneliness. Milton offers Adam the power to dissuade God of this need and bolsters God’s unique ability to bear and embrace His incomparability.

On the eve of the 9th of Av, this year Saturday night, August 10, we usher in the Jewish national day of mourning and read the biblical scroll of Eicha/Lamentations. The opening lament of the scroll portrays the poetic angst of Jerusalem in the aftermath of the destruction of the Temple in 587 BCE: the mass exile of Israel and pillaging of all the glory that once stood as the center of Jewish life. The lament encapsulates the pain of this devastating moment with a feeling of isolation and loneliness. “Alas she sits in solitude... bitterly she weeps in the night, her cheek wet with tears. There is none to comfort her of all her friends... Zion’s roads are in mourning, empty of festival pilgrims. All her gates are deserted.” (Eicha 1:1-2, 4)

THE SENSE of abandonment defines the city’s expression of loss. While “deserted gates” paints the visual picture, this solitude extends beyond the physical reality and into the allegorical psychological state of the mournful city and its inhabitants. The bitter cries of the night reflect the inability to perceive anything beyond herself in the night’s darkness. The focus is upon a feeling of abandonment. “There is none to comfort her of all her friends.” Zion is seeking a companion to alleviate her sense of feeling so very alone – and she finds no shoulder, no compassionate gaze to offer her support.

The intensity of this feeling of loneliness as central to the experience of devastating loss continues to find expression in the exegetical rabbinic Midrash regarding how to offer consolation to another at a time of need. When a loved one dies and a person suffers a loss that cannot be made whole and you step into her presence, it is a moment of great intensity and searching. The Midrash in Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer (17) ascribed to Rabbi Eliezer ben Horkanus in the generation after the destruction of the second Temple, guides us with the goals of expressing loving-kindness at this moment via two instructive verbs.

The Midrash tells one seeking to offer solace, to “see” the mourner and to “sit” with him on the ground. These gestures transform the encounter by an identification with the mourner, “to see him,” to witness his pain and to join him physically and “sit” down with him. Both are incredibly simple expressions of being present. The presence of another person becomes the clearest antidote to the mourner’s sense of dreadful solitude.

The challenge of this moment and search for the proper expression to share with someone suffering is larger than any magic mantra. However, our tradition has crafted a formulaic blessing to bestow upon a mourner, “Hamakom [God] should comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” This formulation opens with evoking the name of God, specifically, a lesser known name of God. Makom literally means “space.” As we turn to the God at this moment we offer the mourner an image of God that is present, one that is nearly tangible at this moment where the world seems ephemeral. This image is also quickly coupled by blessings of comfort from all those who mourn Zion, a reminder to the mourner that they are not alone, that they sit together with an entire community. Our national loss of Zion serves as a gesture of comradery and support to every individual mourner.

As expressed so poignantly, when suffering pain there can be a devastating sense that there is “no pain like my own.” (Eicha 1:12) As we enter this 9th of Av, each carrying our own unique stories of loss and each confronting our own sense of isolation alongside our national loss – we do so together. There is much feeling of otherness in this world. Yet, none of us is a ship cast off sailing aimlessly alone in the sea. Being seen and being sat with, each mourner is offered a lifesaver, standing together as students of God’s first lesson: “lo tov” – it is not good for anyone to feel alone. Reach out.

The writer is the director and rabbanit of Moed, a community-based nonprofit in Zichron Ya’acov fostering connections between secular and religious Israelis through shared study and social action.

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