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Expanding our Spiritual Vocabulary and the Value of Loneliness Parshas Mattos-Masei

“It started about six months ago,” begins Jessica Bennet for the New York Times, “with a smiley face here and there, a sequence of pictograph red hearts when friends would send baby pictures or a string of blown kisses to say good night. I especially liked the face with a toothy, uncomfortable-looking grimace: “Yikes,” it seemed to say. Perfect for “I’m sorry I’m late!” or “Eek, it’s 1 p.m. and I just woke up.””

“Eventually,” she continues in her article titled, The Emoji have Won the Battle of the Words, “I was replacing words with characters, adding a series of flexing biceps to the encouraging “you can do it!” text. Then one day I spent a full 10 minutes obsessing over the perfect way to say “I’m a writer. I don’t do math” in a message to my accountant… by finding said emoji, putting them in sequence and spacing them out, I could have typed the statement 17 times. Mid-composition, I got a phone call from a source I had been waiting to talk to. I pressed ignore.

This was emoji chaos; it had to stop.

The roots of smiley faces and emoticons go back to the 1880s, but the story of the emoji, those little pictorial icons on your cellphone, began in Japan in the mid-1990s when it was added as a special feature to a brand of pagers popular with teenagers. It wasn’t until 2008 that a uniform emoji alphabet was created and Apple adopted it in 2011, adding it to its iOS5 operating system.

But what was once the domain of tech geeks and Honshu tweens has infected the masses. Emoji was crowned as this year’s top-trending word by the Global Language Monitor, and it was added to the Oxford English Dictionary (funny, because it’s a word that describes the concept of not actually using words). (And) I seriously considered adding an emoji sequence to my résumé this week.

“A guy just asked me out in emoji,” a friend told me, when I asked if she thought we had reached an emoji tipping point. [wineglass] + [boy-girl faces] + [?] “We carried on an emoji-only conversation for about 45 minutes.””

This article was written four years ago, and it has only gotten worse, or better, depends on which way you look at it. Although some suggest that emojis are killing our ability to communicate, I would argue that the exact opposite is true. Emoji’s, especially the seemingly endless possibilities of different facial expressions, allow us to digitally communicate not only words but emotions, and as a species with an incredibly wide range of emotions I think that’s pretty important.

Paul Ekman, a pioneer in the study of emotions, once theorized that there are only six basic emotions;angerdisgustfearhappinesssadness and surprise. (Not all of them made the cut for ‘Inside Out.’) Later, researchers added a seventh and eighth emotion, trust and anticipation. But most recently, researchers are arguing that there are 27 distinct emotions; feelings that need to be categorized on their own. Are you ready for the list? Admiration, adoration, aesthetic appreciation, amusement, anger, anxiety, awe, awkwardness, boredom, calmness, confusion, contempt, craving, disappointment, disgust, empathic pain, entrancement, envy, excitement, fear, guilt, horror, interest, joy, nostalgia, pride, relief, romance, sadness, satisfaction, sexual desire, surprise, sympathy, and triumph.

I never studies the research, I don’t know which approach is correct, but what I can say is that limiting the range of emotions to six or eight basic emotions doesn’t resonate with my personal experience. The feelings we have throughout the day, throughout the calendar, and throughout our lives are so distinct and numerous. Euphoric highs after great successes, deep disappointments after failures of our own or of people we looked up to, fear of what will happen to those we love, awe in the presence of greatness, impatience as we work towards a goal, the list seems endless. 27 emotions, at least!

Someone recently shared with me a blog post by Alan Abrams. I don’t know who he is but if I understood correctly, Mr. Abrams is very ill, cooped up in Sharei Tzedek hospital in Israel, battling for his life. A little while ago, after a good day in the hospital, he posted on Facebook how grateful he was to have woken up that morning to a good day.

In the post he subsequently wrote, he reflects how it seemed to him, from the responses of his friends that they only understood one of two states, despair or that of salvation. We are either in a crisis and begging G-d for help, or we are singing songs of gratitude because He saved us. Mr. Abrams powerfully laments how tragic it is that we are so desperately lacking in our spiritual vocabulary – that’s his term, and it’s a great one.

During a time of my life that was rather quiet, or more accurately, a rather lonely time, I used to do something, something that I wish I still do today: Late at night, I would take a book of Tehillim, and find a quiet place where to say Tehillim. The Book of Tehillim is the mouthpiece of our soul, a book that captures emotions like no other. And yes, there are passages that speak of asking G-d for help and there are passages that thank G-d for His compassion. But there are so many others that speak to the wide range of emotion and the endless array of spiritual connection points to G-d.

King David’s spiritual vocabulary includes yearning; yearning for more in life, for closeness to G-d, for a better me. There is resignation; feelings of hopelessness. There is humility; the feeling of smallness and insignificance in the presence of G-d. And yes, there is even anger for the times that we do not understand. All of those, and so much more, need to be part of our spiritual vocabulary if we’d like to live a spiritual life of any depth.

In Alan Abram’s words: “We need to be able to recognize the complexity of the human journey amid illness and suffering. It is so much more than just the binary of lament and of trust that leaves us only able to offer either, “I hope for full healing for you” or “Thank, God, you were healed.” We have so many other songs to sing on our walk through this life. We need to find words for them.”

In the context of broadening our spiritual vocabulary, I’d like to add one word to our repertoire. We have spent the past two weeks discussing tragedy and suffering; the recognition that not all stories end the way we want them to, and our response to suffering. But today, I want to share a thought about the experience of suffering itself; not how to respond to the terrible situation, but how a religious man or woman experiences the suffering itself.

Rav Yosef Soloveitchik, one of the most brilliant Jewish thinkers of the 20th century, once shared an account of how he experienced G-d in a personal time of darkness. The doctors had told him that he would have to undergo intensive and life-threatening surgery. In the pre-surgery room, after embracing his family for what they all knew could be their final embrace, in that moment, he writes, he finally understood the words of King David, “ki avi v’imi azavuni, vaHashem ya’asfeini, my father and mother have forsaken me, and G-d will take me in.”

He was puzzled, he explains, by the notion that a parent would truly forsake their child. What could that possibly mean? Would a parent really leave their beloved child all alone?

And “Yet,” he writes, “in certain situations one is cut off even from his parents or his beloved wife and children. Community life, togetherness, is always imbued with the spirit of cooperation, of mutual help and protection. Suddenly one realizes that there is no help which his loved ones are able to extend to him. They are onlookers who watch a drama unfolding itself with unalterable speed. They are not involved in it. This realization brings to an abrupt end the feeling of togetherness. I stand before G-d; no else is beside me. A lonely being meeting the loneliest being in utter seclusion is a traumatic but also a great experience.” (Out of the Whirlwind)  

We can all use an upgrade to our spiritual vocabulary. The ways in which we can connect to G-d are as diverse as the emotions that we experience. B’chol d’rachecha da’ehu, in every life experience, know G-d, find G-d, or at least seek Him out. But in times of distress, there is no feeling more raw, no feeling more seemingly unredeemable than the feeling of loneliness. That feeling that no one can truly understand what we are going though, how its affecting us, the extent and the depth of our despair. And we try! We try to share our feelings to those around us, even our most beloved, trusted friends and family. But it falls short. Pathetically short. And we can’t properly convey the richness or the depth of what’s raging inside…

And it’s times like those that the bond between this lonely being and that lonely Being can be strengthened in ways that no other experience allows for. Loneliness is… lonely. But it’s also an opportunity like no other; an opportunity of closeness with the only Being who can truly understand.

May G-d wipe the tears off all our faces, may we face no more setbacks, no more illnesses, and no more tragedies. But if we do, let’s remind ourselves, as King David once did, gam ki eilech b’gei tzalmaves, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, the darkest and loneliest of places, lo ira ra, ki ata imadi, I will fear no evil, because You, You the only being who can truly understand me, You are with me.

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