On being alone

Sometimes an outsider’s perspective is what we need to understand ourselves.

Teen depression (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Teen depression
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
We are a lonely people. It is the essential nature of what it means to be a Jew. We are both a part of the world and yet apart from it all the same. It is a tension built into Judaism that one can never reconcile.
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik wrote of this point in his monumental work The Lonely Man of Faith. Soloveitchik writes: “The nature of the dilemma can be stated in a three-word sentence. I am lonely.” Soloveitchik explains that there is a difference between being lonely and being alone, and that while he is not alone, he is in fact lonely. It is the fate of a person of faith to remain alone. This is of course true on a national level as well. Israel is not alone, as much as we wish we were sometimes left alone; but we are lonely.
Our very history makes the point of being lonely but not alone. Our past is one in which all of our great dramas are played out in intercourse with other nations and yet we remain apart from them. From Abraham’s proclamation that he was a stranger and dweller, to the Exodus from Egypt. The wars with the Canaanites and Assyrians and subsequent Babylonian Exile are all played out in a history that is in relation to others. We meet the Persian Empire by its proclamation of a Jewish commonwealth.
So again, on the one hand we are intersecting with Cyrus, but we are also simultaneously recognized as a different and need of our own country. Our interactions with Greece, Rome, Christianity, Islam and the Western world all serve as examples of the same point. There is no Jewish history that exists in a self-contained bubble of its own, and yet we remain distinguished from world history. We just don’t fit in.
Former prime minister Golda Meir made this point in 1969, when she was foreign minister. In a speech she delivered she made the sharp observation that we Jews share no common family of nations, no natural group for us to belong in. There are the Latin American countries that share not only a geography, but a common language, religion and even much of their history. There are the Commonwealth countries that too, mostly share a form of Protestant Christianity, the English language and a common identity. Many still share the queen of England as its sovereign.
There are French-speaking countries, and Arab countries, and Muslim countries. There are Asian and European countries. There are African countries. But the State of Israel is unique in that there is not one group to which we belong. There are no other people that share the Jewish religion. There is no other place in the world in which they speak Hebrew.
We have no natural family. We can only be adopted into a family.
We share no common region. We are neither part of Europe, nor Asia nor Africa.
It is only when one understands these facts can one understand Israel.
It is a quirk in the Jewish Calendar that Jews in Israel and the Diaspora have different Torah readings for the last few weeks. Last week in Israel we read Parshat Balak and this week our brethren in the Diaspora will read it as well.
Perhaps the most famous verse in the parsha are the words of the Prophet Balaam.
Our sages caution us that while there has never arisen another prophet in Israel as great as Moses, there did arise among the gentiles a prophet that even surpassed Moses and that was Balaam. What made Balaam so great is that while any prophet can tell the future, Balaam’s prophecy went to the very core nature of a people. Balaam saw Israel for who they really were. He was able to see into our very essence. He prophesied that Israel is a “people that shall dwell alone, and will not be reckoned among the nations.” These words proclaimed by a gentile over 33 centuries ago are some of the truest words ever spoken by any prophet. The fact that his prophecy holds true over such a great length of time makes him worthy of being thought of as having surpassed Moses.
Haman, who was no prophet, made the same observation about the Jews in his time, about 26 centuries ago, when he said: “There is a certain people dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom who keep themselves separate. Their customs are different from those of all other people…”
It is interesting how these two gentiles were able to see the Jews for who they really are. Sometimes an outsider’s perspective is what we need to understand ourselves. Many of us today have forgotten what it means to be Jewish. We have lost our identity and think of ourselves as just another ethnic group whose job it is to create social justice. Yet, the first step in reclaiming our identity is to understand that we are different, and by embracing our role of being dissimilar, we can then share with the world the many gifts that we have, among them the social justice that we are so famous for.
The writer is a doctoral candidate in Jewish philosophy and currently teaches in many post-high-school yeshivot and midrashot.