In 1965, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, penned what is possibly his most famous essay, the Lonely Man of Faith. It spoke of the tension that the ideal individual feels, torn between the devotional life, a life of G-d, on the one hand, and a life engaged in the sciences and physical accomplishments on the other. Rav Soloveitchik’s thesis was that it need not be an either/or. Inasmuch as there is value in the world of the spirit, there is value in the physical, material world as well; our scientific, intellectual, and professional accomplishments are a healthy part of our life. An essential part of life, and perhaps where the greatest growth can be found, is navigating between these two poles, that of spiritual and the physical, and creating a life where every part of our personality, body and soul, is fulfilled. He described the religious individual as lonely because such a person lives in two worlds, never fully embracing either one, and therefore never really feeling welcome.
Today, 56 years later, the tension still exists, the loneliness does not. One can so easily be a man or woman of faith and very much part of society. This is true not only in the Modern Orthodox world, but even in the Chareidi world as well. Best-selling musician, Alex Clare, Deputy National Security Advisor, Chani Neuberger, lawyer, David Schoen, and these are just some people mentioned in the news in the past few weeks. The notion that a person who is deeply religious and professionally and academically ambitious will, by definition, feel isolated is no longer true.
If anything, loneliness seems to be more of a non-religious issue than a religious one. Well before we were talking about Covid, we were discussing a different pandemic, the pandemic of loneliness. Robert Putnam was the first to sound the alarm twenty years ago with his book, Bowling Alone, arguing that Americans had become increasingly disconnected from friends and family. In 2018, a study that was blasted all over the country told us that loneliness can be just as damaging to one’s health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. The same year, the UK created a new government position, the Minister of Loneliness, to tackle this problem. But faith-based communities, like ours, have a built-in antidote to loneliness, and that is our obsession with communal life. We are forced to live within walking distances of our shuls creating close-knit communities, we promote family life and intergenerational involvement, minyan forces people into the same space three times a day, and we value studying with a partner. If Rabbi Soloveitchik would be here today, I wonder what he would call his essay. The man and woman of faith are the least lonely of all.
But there is another form of loneliness that a person faith must still grapple with. It is a form of loneliness that exists in every type of society, regardless of how welcoming they are to people of faith. It is a form of loneliness that we can trace all the way back to our most social forefather, to our most materially successful forefather, to our most spiritual forefather, and that is Yaakov. Surrounded by his four wives, twelve sons, a dizzying amount of wealth, and unparalleled spiritual accomplishments, Yaakov, nonetheless feels alone. “Vayivaser Yaakov l’vado, and Yaakov remained alone.”
According to one interpretation, Yaakov is not wrestling with an angel, he is wrestling with himself (see the Malbim and Rabbeinu Bachya). He recognizes that despite all he has accomplished, he is still not content with where he is in life. Despite all the people around him praising him and seeing him as their hero, in his own eyes, he is nothing. And perhaps we can say that it is not just despite his accomplishments, but it is because of them that he feels this way. Looking at him and what he has done, no one can possibly appreciate the sense of longing and the sense of inadequacy that Yaakov experiences. Imposter syndrome describes someone who feels like a fraud. What Yaakov experiences is far deeper. He is authentic, there is no fraud, but he knows that it’s not enough. A person of faith, a person who is alive to their soul, knows that feelings of spiritual satisfaction don’t exist in this world, that the thirst for G-dliness is never satiated, that the work, the inner work, is never done – even though everyone around him thinks that he’s on top of the world.
“Vayivaser Yaakov l’vado, and Yaakov remained alone,” is not just a physical description of his being left alone in middle of the night, it is his inner state – he is restless, he is agitated, and no one can understand why, and so Yaakov, surrounded by adoring family and friends, is forced to remain alone.
Yaakov does not ignore his loneliness. So often, we sense that there’s more to life. So often, we hear the primal scream of our soul. So often, we feel as if something about the way we live is off. And how do we respond? We turn up the volume of life. We throw ourselves deeper into our work, we binge on a new tv series, we get into a new hobby. Or, alternatively, we are so consumed by this unsettling feeling that we get depressed.
But not Yaakov. Yaakov wrestled with his loneliness; Yaakov embraced the fact that a man or woman of faith will always feel unsettled. The goal is to accept that there will always be a gap between who we are and who we need to be, between our soul’s yearnings and her ability to express herself in this world, and to stop! And to listen! To be guided by our soul, as she pushes us and pulls us to change. But to also accept that no matter how much we accomplish, we will never arrive at a settled destination. The spiritual life is one of never arriving. The wrestling match lasts the whole night, all of life. The wrestling match involves injury, it’s not easy and it could be painful. The worst pain of all, is the terrible loneliness that comes along with this spiritual struggle. We could share stories about our professional challenges with colleagues, familial challenges with friends, but the inner challenge, this battle with ourselves, is one that no one can fully understand.
I’d venture to say that Yaakov’s life of challenge and dare I say, trauma, and his inner struggle with loneliness are related. It is most often people who have been forced to face the abyss, people who have been forced to second-guess everything they know and love, people who have been through the crucible of life’s challenges, who feel the gap between who they are and where they need to be most acutely. Though we never would wish hardship on anyone, I have consistently found that those who experience earth-shattering hardship develop a sense of unsettledness like no one else. The loneliness of trauma is not only that no one knows what you’ve been through, it’s that no one cannot relate to how you now see the world.
The Medrash, commenting on the words, “vayivaser Yaakov l’vado/ and Yaakov remained alone,” quotes a verse in Yeshaya, “v’nisgav Hashem l’vado, and Hashem will remain alone.” There is one Being that could understand our loneliness. It is not our parents, it is not our lover, nor is it our best friends. A life of spirituality, a life of listening to one’s unique soul is a life of inner turmoil that is unrelatable to other human beings. We will try to share the height of our exhilaration, and it will fall flat. We will try to share the depth of our despair, and it will come out all wrong. Just like we can never fully appreciate who G-d is, no other human being can fully appreciate who we are. And so, G-d, the loneliest of Beings is the only being that can truly understand who we are and what we are going through.
To be a person of faith in 2021 does not involve the same sense of loneliness that it did 60 years ago. Tension, yes, loneliness, no. But to be a person of faith in any generation means to be alive to one’s inner world, to be attuned to a soul that is not satisfied with all the popularity and material success in the world, nor is she ever content with all of our great spiritual accomplishments. Our soul knows how much we can accomplish – it is endless. To be a person of faith is to spend time alone, listening to those yearnings, and allowing them to guide us wherever it may take us, to not be swayed by public opinion, to do what’s right for ourselves. To be a person of faith is to recognize that we will never be satisfied and to not allow that thought to overwhelm us, but instead to never stop wrestling, knowing that the wrestling stops when life stops. To be a person of faith means to be a part of society, but to also be alone, knowing that one can only fully be understood by G-d. It’s a lonely life, but it’s the only life worth living.
One of the most tragic, evocative scenes in the Torah is the death of Rachel Imeinu. She is Yaakov’s first love, and yet, she is buried all alone, nowhere near her beloved husband – a further slap in the face to the woman who was forced to share her husband with her sister. Even more pathetic – she spent her life pining for children, and she dies most ironically, as she delivers her second son, never having the opportunity to serve as this child’s mother.
When we are introduced to the Imahot, the matriarchs, Rachel and Leah, it is Leah who the Torah depicts as wallowing in tears. She, according to the Medrashim, is terrified that she will be forced to marry Esav, and so every night she cries herself to sleep, to the point that her eyes are puffed up from the steady stream of tears. Rachel, on the other hand, seems to know that she is destined for Yakov, and her inner joy radiates in outer beauty; yefat to’ar vifat mar’eh. But by the time we conclude their story, it is Leah who is overjoyed, she has Yakov’s constant attention, and Rachel is filled with bitterness, describing her second and final son, as the son of my affliction. Those are the sentiments she expresses with her final breath.
It’s an ancient tale with modern meaning. It’s a story of unfulfilled dreams, of fantasies turned into nightmares, of tables being turned in seemingly, the cruelest of fashions. And this story of a childless, loveless woman is especially meaningful for us Jews, who have created a society in which marriage and children play such a significant role. Our Shabbosos and Yomim Tovim revolve around time spent with family, we are obsessed with the transmission of values to the next generation, and we can’t stop talking about marriage. And please don’t misunderstand me, these values are precious commodities in 2021, they are scarce, and I would not trade these values for anything in the world.
But like all good things it comes with a price. Those who do not fit this mold, those who are not married, or those who do not have children, can easily find themselves out of place. Those who do not have a spouse at their side, who don’t have children to boast of, can too easily feel like Rachel, left all alone on the side of the road.
We’ve spoken in the past about the responsibility of the community to ensure that no one feels deserted, that no one feels less-than. I am told that there are shuls that do not have special pricing for people who are single. Why? Because they do not want to encourage people to remain single or get divorced. As if there are people who are weighing the cost of shul membership against marriage?! Really now. As if there are people who wouldn’t give anything to be married but simply have not found a spouse. I am told that there are shuls in which the entire board is made up of people who are married with children. Not on purpose but because those who do not have children are not connected to their shul. I wonder why…
We, as a community, have ways to go. I say this not in light of these other shuls and communities, I say this as the rabbi of Ner Tamid, a shul where I’d like to believe that everyone feels welcome, where our board represents the full gamut of our shul, where we attempt to create a space for all. And yet, we have to recognize that our Jewish values sometimes rub against individual people. We do see marriage as an ideal. We do celebrate an abundance of children. This tension is inevitable.
In finding this balance, we as a community could certainly use more sensitivity in how we speak and what we speak about – what terms do we use to describe people who are not married? “Boys and girls?!” Infantilizing those who are not married. “Singles?!” As if their entire identity revolves around their relationship status. We, as a community, could use more thoughtfulness in choosing who to invite to our homes – how diverse is our friend group or our Shabbos table? We, as a community, could be more inclusive and ensure that all voices are heard – are there really representatives of every segment of our community at the table when decisions are made?
We can all spend some time thinking about the story of Rachel, imagining her forced smile at the wedding of her sister, imagining her bitter cries drowned out by the cries of Leah’s many children, and imagining her dying on the side of the road, knowing that she would be buried there, being laid to rest in solitude, dying the same way she lived.
But I think, and this is what I would like to focus on today, it would also be valuable to listen to the voice of her husband, Yaakov, who attempts to guide her. You see, Rachel and Yaakov had a relationship that I imagine was utterly unique in the ancient world they lived in. She was open with her husband and shared her frustrations and fears. The Torah records her complaining bitterly to Yaakov about her lack of children. Rashi frames Rachel’s struggle as a religious one, which is not surprising. Though I don’t have data to support this, a truism in our community is that the non-cookie-cutter family or non-family types in our midst struggle mightily with religion. Some have argued that there seems to be fewer single older observant men than women and this, it is suggested, is because many men, as they get older and are single, lose their connection to their faith. The same can be said about many divorcees who feel forsaken. And the same can be said about parents struggling in silence to conceive. The line between a social struggle of fitting in, and a religious one of having faith, is often blurred.
Though we like to believe that our connection to our faith is intrinsically-motivated, that we believe deeply in G-d and in the values of Judaism. But the truth is the social factor, our sense of belonging in a community plays an outsized role. And so, Rachel, our matriarch, our role model, as she grappled with her infertility, she too struggled with figuring out her connection and relationship to Hashem.
Yaakov, when he hears his wife complaining, responds rather strongly. Our sages take him to task for responding harshly to his wife who was in pain. But the substance of his response is valid. What is it that he told her? According to Rav Yitzchak Arama, a 15th century Spanish Torah scholar, Yaakov was upset with her because she misunderstood her life-calling. Rachel felt that without children, her life was not worth living. “Hava li banim, give me children,” she said. “V’im ayin, because if not, meitah anochi, I will die.” This is not life. I cannot go on.
And Yaakov said no. That is incorrect. Rav Arama explains: There are two names given to the very first, prototypical woman in the Torah, Chava and Ishah. On the one hand she was Chava, the mother of all living things, the eim kol chai, and on the other, entirely independent of her role as a mother, she was an Ishah, an absolute equal to Ish, the first man. Rav Arama suggests that this is why Yaakov Avinu was upset at Rachel who felt so lost without children. Yaakov was trying to convey to her that while our faith emphasizes the important role of family, especially for women, that need not be one’s entire identity. Without being a Chava, a mother of living things, a woman can still attain fulfilment and be complete as an Isha. That was the message that Yaakov conveyed to his wife. And I would extend that principle – that despite our faith placing an incredible emphasis on the married life, a woman and a man can attain fulfilment and completion without being married. You are not less than. You are complete.
There’s a wonderful group in town called a Single Impact, their objective is to create a sense of community for people who are single. Yesterday, I received an email from them asking me the following question: “We are creating social clubs for singles, such as book clubs, movie clubs, etc. Can singles use their maaser money (money that they designate to charity) to pay the membership fee for these clubs?”
This is what I responded: “I love the idea!!! Creating social circles around singles is the way to go! In terms of using maaser, absolutely not! I say this strongly because I feel strongly that you should not see your participation in such a group as doing something that is a ‘nebech’ (a pity-case) of any sort… One of the values that I think your organization can help promote is a sense of community and self-worth that stands independent of one’s marital status. Using maaser money would give the wrong impression and feed an unhealthy narrative that one who is single is less than.”
You see, what Yaakov was conveying to Rachel was that it’s not just the community’s fault in you feeling alienated. It’s your responsibility as well. You have to create a sense of self independent of what other people say. Don’t wait for invitations from married couples. You have to create a sense of community around those who are like you – that’s how most communities are formed. We naturally spend time with people who are most like us. But you are not a nebech. Don’t make yourself out to be one.
My mother, who is one of my greatest role models, is single. She gets invited out a lot by friends, most of them are married. But you know what my mother does that I absolutely love? She invites them back to her home for a meal. She’s single, it’s strange. But who cares! And more than ‘who cares’ it’s a way of maintaining her dignity, which she, and every single person, deserves.
I remember how when I was a child she conveyed this idea to me in a powerful fashion. As a young child I was quite short. When you grow up, you realize that all Jews are short, but at the time, as a little kid, it was a big deal. I think I’ve gotten over it by now, despite the fact that I am standing on a stepstool… One night, I must have been in second grade, my mother came into my room to wish me good night and she saw that I was crying. After a little coaxing, I acknowledged that I was crying because there was a boy in my class who was making fun of me for being short. So what would you do if you were my mother?
I think many mothers would call the school and complain that their son is being bullied. But all that would do is further reenforce the idea that I was a pity-case, that others had to look out for me, that I was less-than because I was short. My mother, ever so wisely, talked to me about being short. Did you do anything wrong? No. Is there something to be embarrassed of? Not really. Does it hold you back from doing anything? I won’t make the YU basketball team, but that’s about it. What she said to me is, “G-d made you this away and that’s okay.” If this bully in your class has an issue with it, let him complain to G-d.
The next day, sure enough, the bully made fun of me, and that was my response – “Go tell that to the one who made me this way.” When you’re in second grade in a very religious school, this is the comeback of the century. He never made fun of me again. But more importantly, I learned to value myself.
Just because we do not fit a cookie-cutter model of average, or of typical, or of everyone else, does not mean that we are less than.
We can be divorced and be whole.
We can be single and be complete.
We can be childless and be fulfilled.
And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
Yirmiyahu, Jeremiah, the prophet, shares a vision of a future redemption. It’s a vision of a world with no more brokenness, no more hurt, no more pain. And in this prophecy, instead of addressing Himself to the Jewish People as a whole, all of whom must have experienced pain and loss. Instead, G-d addresses Himself to Rachel alone. He tells her that He heard her bitter cries. He has seen how all the pain that she, and all those like her, have endured. G-d begs Rachel, “Min’i koleich mibechi, v’einayich min dimah, please stop crying, please wipe your eyes from its tears. You may feel distant from me, but you, says G-d, are more precious to Me than anyone else.