Rosh Hashanah 5779
Remember Eleanor Rigby?
Eleanor Rigby who picked up the rice in a church where a wedding has been.
She lived in a dream.
She waited at her window, wearing a face
That she kept in a jar by the door?
But who was it for?
If you remember Eleanor Rigby, you probably also remember Father MacKenzie.
Who sat writing the words
To a sermon that no one will hear
Because no one comes near.
We saw him working,
Darning his socks
In the night when nobody’s there.
What did he care?
It was these two figures that sprang from Paul McCartney’s imagination that provoked him to ask this profound question in 1966: All the lonely people…where do they all come from?
More than fifty years later, the question remains unanswered. All the lonely people, where do they all come from?
Today, connections are measured in gigabytes per minute. Devices that fit in our pockets deliver live audio and video of relatives and friends scattered across the world in an instant. We are able to “reach out and touch someone” cheaper, faster, and easier than ever before. And yet, our digital age is creating a population that is growing lonelier by the millisecond.
In the late 1970s, polls showed that up to 20% of Americans were chronically lonely. But by 2010, AARP conducted a nationally representative study finding that those numbers had doubled to 40-45%.
And don’t let the fact that the study was commissioned by a non-profit that advocates for retirees fool you into thinking that this is a scourge that disproportionately affects the aged. A study completed this year in Paul McCartney’s native Britain, found that 16-24 year olds–who use electronic and social media more than any other demographic–were three times more likely to feel lonely than those advanced in age.
But the real problem is not just that we are growing lonelier, it’s that we are being born into a world that cultivates, and even welcomes loneliness.
At the start of the millennium, it was Robert Putman’s book, Bowling Alone, that first called our attention to the fact that our cultural associations—PTAs, Scouting Groups, and Rotary Clubs—were in danger of giving way altogether to TV screens, chat rooms, and the solitaire applications preprogrammed into our phones.
As these trends have accelerated, the real consequences of this new age of solitude have come into focus: traditional institutions of American communities are disappearing. Churches and synagogues are emptier, participation in our democracy has declined, collective ethical norms have given way to a spineless system of subjective morality where the will of individuals triumphs over the timeless truths that have served as the bedrock of justice and fairness.
Then, of course, there is the very real toll that loneliness has taken on our bodies and our souls. Loneliness can raise our blood pressure, increasing the risk of heart attacks and strokes. It can impair brain function and make us less likely to succeed in our careers.
It can even provoke changes in our DNA, eroding our body’s ability to appropriately respond to infections or physical and emotional stress.
And perhaps the most insidious social effect of our societies’ pull towards loneliness is that the most obvious solution to this problem—going to find a room full of people–has become something our minds and our emotions are no longer equipped to deal with.
Because we bury ourselves in a blanket of opinion pieces that reinforce our own ideas, or convince ourselves that “friends” are not people, but a social media statistic, we are in danger of losing the ability to walk into a room filled with actual people and spark genuine connections that result in lasting, meaningful relationships.
After all, why would we ever let go of a safe, predictable, controllable “virtual space”, and immerse ourselves in an unpredictable sea of people who might judge us, disagree with us, or reject us?
The result, of course, is that as long as we carry a screen in our pockets, we can be at dinner with our spouse and our children or in a room full of a thousand people, and still be alone.
In fact, some of us have convinced ourselves that we are better off alone.
But all of us, to some degree, no matter our age, no matter what we might tell ourselves or others, have become Eleanor Rigby and Father McKenzie.
And though there are a myriad of reasons why this phenomenon is not good for humanity, what concerns me, on this day in particular as we celebrate the birth of the universe, is that our tacit acceptance and sanction of loneliness rejects the very purpose that propelled us into the world in the first place.
Open the book of Genesis and you’ll see very quickly that woven into every piece of parchment in the Torah is opposition to isolation. Leaf through a few pages of Mishnah or Talmud and it will become crystal clear that Judaism rejects solitude.
In fact, for 5779 years, Judaism has been at war with loneliness.
In the second chapter of Bereshit, the Torah relates the creation of man. Formed from the dust, and brought to life with the very breath of God, we came into being as stewards of the earth—a vast array of oceans, fields, and forests, teeming with life. And yet, when Adam surveyed the world around him, one of the first emotions he experienced was profound loneliness.
Why? Because when God created birds, he filled the sky with them. When God created fish, he dotted the sea with them. But when God created us, he created us alone. A single human being faced with an enormous task that would take all of eternity to complete.
Why did God create man, knowing that he would immediately experience an overwhelming and debilitating sense of solitude?
There can only be one answer. Because he wanted us to despise being lonely.
He wanted the first desire in the history of humanity to be the longing for companionship, for partnership, for soul encountering soul.
Truth be told, God does not care much for loneliness either. And if any being knows true loneliness, it is the Kadosh Baruch Hu, the Holy One, blessed is He.
Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad.
Our new machzor correctly translates this frequently misunderstood verse: Hear, Oh Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai alone.
Alone in His divinity. Alone in His sovereignty, and before God created the world, alone in existence.
We were the solution, the beings God created to partner with Him in the perfection of creation. God ensured, that by creating us in His image, we would not only contain sparks of His divinity, but echoes of His own experience of solitude. A reminder that for the person of faith, we are never truly alone, even in our loneliness.
At the end of each day of creation, God surveyed all that he had done and proclaimed: va’yar elohim ki tov. And God saw that it was good.
But when God looked down upon Adam in the garden and saw him standing by himself, for first the first time in history of living things, God disapproved.
Vayomer Adonai Elohim, lo tov l’heyot adam levado.
And the Lord God said, “It is not good for man to be alone. I will make a fitting helpmate for him, ezer k’negdo.”
More just than his companion, the salve that soothes his loneness, she serves as his helpmate, not in standing by him, the Hebrew text suggests, but by standing opposite him.
Rabbi Moshe Meiselman writes that God’s intention in giving Adam a wife was that marriage “obligates [one partner] to shift the focus of his [or her] concern from the [self] to the [other]. For to live alone is to deny the foundation of Jewish ethics, the experience and emotion of hesed, of lovingkindness.”
Rabbi Meiselman’s subject here is marriage, specifically, but his point is salient to all who give into loneliness. Because, as the Torah reminds us, relationships teach us about the obligations we have to each other.
They help us learn empathy and compassion. When others become our concern, they become our responsibility, they become part of our story and we become a part of theirs.
In other words, Judaism is not so much opposed to loneliness as it is to aloneness, to self-centeredness, to selfishness.
And let me be clear. I’m not talking about the loneliness that is imposed upon us, God-forbid, by social isolation, or by illness, or by loss. I’m talking about the loneliness that we allow the world to impose upon us–that we, at times, unwittingly, impose upon ourselves.
If you look carefully at the lyrics McCartney wrote, you’ll see that the characters he created are not alone because they want to be. But they are lonely because they choose to be.
How much time did Father McKenzie waste, writing sermons for himself, defiantly darning his socks by the fire, convinced that he would never be appreciated for his brilliance? His loneliness was a product of his small-mindedness, of the tiny circle he drew around himself.
What would have happened had he ventured out at night to listen to the spiritual longings of those beyond the front door of his parsonage? How many lives could he have changed? How many souls could he have saved?
And Eleanor Rigby? Yes, she might evoke our sympathy. Our hearts may sink when we think of her wistfully lamenting her solitude, as the grains of the rice thrown in celebration of the bride she would never become slip through her fingers.
But why did she never find her ezer k’negdah, the soul destined to unite with hers?
Because, the song tells us, she lived in a dream.
Like those who spend their days staring at photos of happy people on Instagram, convinced that those images represent the true psychological measure of a two dimensional figure made of dots of light, Eleanor convinced herself that her perception of a perfect world was the only reality she need to aspire to.
The last time I was lonely; truly, profoundly lonely, was twelve years ago in 2006. I was working at a hedge fund in Manhattan and living in a one-bedroom apartment in Long Island City. It may surprise you to learn that your extraverted, outspoken rabbi, whose idea of a good time is standing in front of a crowd of hundreds of people, came home every Friday evening after work, closed the door, ordered a large cheese pizza, and didn’t emerge until 8 AM the following Monday morning. And no, not even to go to shul, which I hadn’t been regularly attending for almost a decade.
I wasn’t depressed. I wasn’t upset. I simply felt that five days a week in the company of others and making enough money to support my rather unsophisticated diet was enough to sustain me.
I wasn’t lonely because I wanted to be, I was alone because I chose to be.
How did I break out of my cycle of solitude? I’ll give you three guesses and the first two don’t count.
But before I give the answer all of you are, no doubt, anticipating, I also want to answer another obvious question. What took me so long?
As most of you know, I spent my childhood years, nurtured in the warm embrace of a large, suburban, Conservative synagogue not so different from Shearith Israel.
The main difference being that the Jews in Baltimore have no idea how to drink whiskey.
In fact, my shul was so wonderful that I became convinced that I would never find its equal. So I stopped looking for it. Like Eleanor Rigby’s, my idea of Jewish life was a dream, a perfect fiction that, to tell the truth, was never even really all that perfect to begin with.
Then, on a whim, I traveled to Israel to study at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem. For three weeks, I immersed myself in Jewish text and Jewish community. More importantly, I re-entered the rhythm of Jewish living. It was then that truly realized how lonely I had been, how alone I had allowed myself to become.
Davening with my fellow students each morning, noon, and night, I was reminded that holiness can only be attained in the company of nine other Jews—because the most elevated of moments of prayer, like the kedusha during the amidah, when we raise our bodies heavenward, imagining ourselves among the angels, can only be recited with a minyan.
At communal meals, I recalled that Judaism rewards those that never break bread by themselves—for without the company of others we cannot offer the full birkat hamazon, the grace after meals, because the zimun, the invitation to prayer, can only be recited when three or more Jews dine together.
And how do Jews study sacred text? In chevruta—in pairs, so that what was once a monologue becomes a dialogue. Learning in chevruta forces us to reconcile our own ideas, our own interpretation of a text, our own perception of the world, with that of our partner.
It goes without saying that Jewish life is engineered to encourage and foster community.
And certainly, as a rabbi, my appreciation for the ingenuity of that design has only increased.
Most new parents instinctually retreat into the cocoon of their own homes, exhausted and overwhelmed, wondering how two people with no experience raising a child became instantaneously charged with the well-being of an infant. How easy would it be to retreat into aloneness, to shield their vulnerability and their fears from the eyes of others?
But Jewish parents can’t make that choice, because just eight days into parenthood they find themselves surrounded by friends and family as they enter their new child into the brit, the covenant. And perhaps, just perhaps, through their exhaustion and their anxiety, they’ll look out into the crowd and realize that when it comes to raising their child, they are not as alone as they thought.
Marriage is often described as the binding of two souls into one. I’ve known many couples who allow themselves to believe that once they find their partner, their lonely days are over.
And so, they retreat into shared solitude. Only later, do they suddenly find themselves very alone in a relationship that, for some reason, is beginning to show signs of strain.
But in our tradition, the first home that a chatan and kallah, a bride and groom, share together as a married couple has no walls to hide behind, because a chuppah is open on all four sides as a reminder that a home is not a Jewish home unless it is open to family and friends, to the stranger and to the needy.
And just as our faith ensures that we are not lonely in our joy or chose aloneness despite it, so too does it insist that no one shoulder the burden of pain or of illness alone. Each week I marvel at the generosity of those within our community who visit the sick and the homebound, who prepare meals for families caring for loved ones in the hospital.
In every Jewish community, no one, no one should mourn alone. Yes, we are obligated to ensure that during the week of shiva the newly bereaved do not face the daunting task of praising God’s name in the face of death without the support of their community.
But mourning does not last a week, or a month or a year. It lasts a lifetime. And that is why, each day, members of our community wake up, sometimes before the sun even rises, or leave work early, or delay their family’s dinner and come to minyan, to ensure that no member of Shearith Israel grieves alone.
On some mornings, I have counted as many as ten or twelve people who sacrifice their time and their sleep so that one person can say kaddish for a recent loss, or mark the yahrtzeit of a parent, sibling, or child gone for years or decades.
Even in death, we are not alone, for from the moment we pass until the moment our bodies enter the earth and our souls are reunited with the source of life, we are watched over by a shomer, a guardian who fulfills the mitzvah of kavod hamet, honoring the dead.
This was not the case, however for Eleanor Rigby
Who died in the church
And was buried along with her name
Father McKenzie, wiping the dirt
From his hands as he walks from the grave
No one was saved
All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
Eleanor Rigby and Father McKenzie, both wandering through the same church alone for God-knows how many years until it was too late for both.
But it is not too late for us. All the lonely people? It’s all too clear where they come from.
Today, we ask a different question. All the lonely people, where do they all belong?
They belong here with us. It is our responsibility as a sacred community, and as individuals, to take up Judaism’s call to eradicate loneliness.
So contact my thirteenth cousin, once removed, Dr. Joel Roffman, and offer to cook or deliver mitzvah meals. He needs volunteers.
Call Theresa Hurt and ask her for the list of members who are convalescing in rehab facilities, nursing homes, or who are homebound.
Pick up a copy of the misheberach list, those whose healing we pray for each day, find a name you recognize, look them up in the directory, and call them or visit them.
When you receive a bereavement e-mail in your inbox and you notice that the list of surviving relations is unusually short, go to the shiva house, even if you don’t know the family. You don’t have to make conversation. After all, in the aftermath of death, what is there to say? Your company will mean more than even the most eloquent words of consolation.
Come to minyan in the afternoon at 6 o’clock, or more urgently at 7 am. I get it, it’s early, the words are all in Hebrew, and you might not know when to sit or stand, or bow. Trust me, however lost you might feel, is nothing compared to how lonely it is to mourn by yourself. As your rabbi, I give you the permission to come to Fonberg chapel and just sit there if you have to. Just be present.
And finally, help us continue to reorganize and energize this community so that nobody is left behind, nobody is left out. If you are here today, that means you have some connection to some aspect of Jewish life or Jewish culture-—be it bagels and cream cheese, combating BDS, or becoming the best version of ourselves that we can be.
Help us create more opportunities in homes, in restaurants, in bars, so that we can relearn how to talk to each other, so that we can realize that we share the same values even if we disagree about how to apply them.
And if you are feeling lonely, or if you are tempted to accept our society’s dangerous notion that hiding behind a screen or that acclimating yourself to aloneness is the solution to what keeps you up at night, know that you are not alone. You never have to be alone. Because chances are someone else is wandering around this synagogue today feeling the same thing.
Though I began with lyrics to a song most of us probably know, it’s not just lyrics to Beatles songs that we Jews have learned by heart. For even the most secular Jew would probably recognize the words of the first verse of Psalm 133:
Hinei mah tov u’mah nai’m shevet achim gam yachad.
How good and pleasant it is when brothers and sisters dwell together.
But Psalm 133 only has three verses and we rarely quote the other two:
K’tal chermon, sh’yerod al harerei tzion.
It is the dew of Chermon that falls upon the mountain of Zion, on whose pinnacle sat the great Temple in Jerusalem, the gathering place of the Jewish people.
Ki sham tzivah adonai et ha’bracha chayim ad o’lam
For it is there, that God has commanded us to assemble, each from our own little corner of the world. For my sake, He cries out, cast away your solitude and rejoice together in the sacred path that I have given you, so that you might receive the blessing of life, forever.
Or, to put God’s words in, perhaps, a more fitting vernacular:
Come together, right now, over me.