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.