Chol HaMoed Pesach- Alone But Not Lonely

Holding onto the wisdom of our tradition

I hope that your Seders this week were meaningful. I know I deeply experienced the insight of Rabbi Sacks that I shared last week – that we have never been more alone and never been more together.  It felt so dissonant from the way Passover is meant to be spent – no one was around the table.  At the same time seeing people’s faces and hearing their voices on zoom felt connecting. In fact – in some ways it allowed people from far away who normally wouldn’t be at the Seder table to join and that was a blessing. We adapt. We adjust. Our resilience grows.

These weeks of being sheltered in place has given new understanding of what it means to be alone.  Judaism has much to teach about being alone.  It is summed up in the words of Rabbi Meir Soloveitchik who teaches that Judaism teaches that one can be alone and not lonely. We need this wisdom now.

One way that we can be alone but not lonely is our belief that the past lives in the present. We are never alone when we are in constant conversation with voices from the past. In fact, the past is so real that we are meant to see ourselves as if we too left Egypt.  As we carry the past into the present, the bounds of time cease to exist.  While alone, the presence of the wisdom and insight of the voices from the past make it so we are not lonely. Think of those voices from the Hagaddah and the Passover story who live in the present: Elijah actually comes to the Seder.  Rabban Gamliel teaches us the essence of Seder in Pesach, Matza and Maror.  Moses demonstrates courage and leadership.  Miriam watches over her brother and leaps out of the bushes when an opportunity arises to save him. The Seder is meant to be a symposium of generations all in dialogue with us.  Let that past speak to us during these times. 

And don’t limit the discussion to the great sages and biblical heroes. Listen to the voices of grandparents, great-grandparents, relatives and friends whose stories inform and define us.  We can be alone and not lonely as all of those voices speak to us.  Whose voice is speaking to you?  Whose presence might you turn to?  Create space for the voices of the past to speak to you right now. As I wrote this, I thought of my Great Uncle, Rabbi Zev Nelson.  I was given his atara – the piece at the top of the tallit with blessing written on it. He, as I did many years later, received the atara upon receiving ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary – and it was sitting in a box in my garage.  One Pesach I asked everyone to bring a object or story of someone who impacted their lives to the Seder, and I shared Zev’s atara.  We all agreed that it should not be in a box in the garage, and  Mimi had a special tallit woven for me with Zev’s atara.  Every time I put it on, I feel as if he is speaking to me with his gentle, kind, wise voice.  The past is present – keeping us company when we mindfully seek to access it.

We are not lonely when we are alone because the past lives with us and because we share a connection with fellow Jews, and all of humanity. Those connections are real and strong. Simply knowing that so many others were reciting the Haggadah, reflecting on being slaves who found freedom, and teaching this story to our children allows our hearts to connect from a distance. Think about our connections as a people – our shared values, history, fate – and allow that connection to become real.

And know that while the company of those from the past and connections that transcend borders sustains us – also reflect on the insight that some of the greatest moments of insight and revelation come when we are alone.  We are not lonely when the spiritual work of reflection, meditation and heightened observation allows us to see and understand things in different ways.  As we create space to be alone with our spirit and wisdom, sometimes we are able to access new insights and revelations.  Think about all of the insights that came from being alone.  Moses is alone in the wilderness when he perceives God’s presence in the burning bush that was not consumed.  Alone in the wilderness, contemplating something he had never experienced before, Moses has his initial encounter with God.  Alone on Mt. Sinai, Moses receives God’s revelation and comes down the mountain glowing – radiant.  We don’t feel lonely when our heart is full of new insights, wisdom and revelation. We too can glow like Moses.

In this morning’s portion, there is only a brief mention of Passover preceded by the story of Moses pleading with God in the aftermath of the Golden Calf to not abandon the people. God agrees, and then Moses asks to behold God’s Presence.  God replies that Moses cannot see God’s face and live – but that God will “make his goodness pass before Moses.”  He places Moses in the cleft of the rock, and hides him with His hand – Moses is profoundly alone.  And in that moment God makes Moses aware of different aspects of God’s essence.  He learns that God is El Rachum v’chanun – God is compassionate and gracious.  How different than the God who Moses previously experienced who was angry and vengeful – ready to destroy the people.  In that moment of being alone, Moses came to understand the mystery and synthesis of contradictions that God can be – all of which is God. We too can create time and space to truly be alone – contemplating meaning and purpose, belief and doubt, insight and essence.  Let’s create time and space to pray, reflect, explore, contemplate – and new insights and awareness will emerge during this surreal, mysterious, upsetting and abnormal time.

We have extraordinary teachers from modern times to teach us that we can find meaning as we are alone. One example is the late Menachem Begin, who was Israel’s Prime Minister from 1977 – 1982.  Rabbi Meir Soloveitchik shared that as a young man, Begin was imprisoned in Russia for being a Zionist.  Under interrogation and torture, he refused to admit that Zionism was a crime. He continued to argue for the right of Jews to return to Palestine, and affirmed belief in God in a system which rejected such beliefs.  Begin was thrown into solitary confinement and told to stand facing a spot on the wall for 60 hours a week.

Can you imagine that?  How do you survive that type of aloneness?  I cannot imagine retaining my sanity.  Yet Begin’s mind remained strong and his determination was vibrant.  Begin was alone – but not lonely because he felt spiritually connected to others.  Begin overcame aloneness of prison by using his mind and imagination to weave together moments from the past, present and future. He replayed moment from his childhood in Poland where his ideas about Zionism, Judaism and meaning began to take shape. He thought of the other proud Jewish young people he knew who shared his determination to go to Israel. He imagined moments to come – when he would be in Israel.  Begin teaches that even a point on a wall can be an open book. It can conjure pictures and memories – and tell of home. As we are alone, can we imagine our past which points to our future?    Our current isolation is not akin to Begin’s isolation–but his story of staring at that spot on the wall – reminds us that we too can use our time alone to create a deeper Jewish soul – informed and inspired by the past, while looking toward that future.  Let’s learn from Begin’s example.

One more hero who lived the essence of slavery – also imprisoned in Russia for embracing Zionism is Natan Scharansky.  Drawing from his own experience as a prisoner, last week Sharansky made a short YouTube video for the Jewish Agency where he shares five tips from his experience in prison for for how to navigate being alone, but not lonely:

  1. Understand, we are part of huge global battle, and our behavior matters. You don’t feel so lonely when you are part of a collective effort to address a pandemic. Each of our behaviors matter.  As we isolate and distance, we play a crucial role in things resolving with less devastation. When we are connected to a sacred value like pikuach nefesh – saving a life our time alone takes on greater significance.
  2. Do what you can control – read and learn – allow yourself to grow.
  3. Never give up your sense of humor. You are not lonely when you are laughing. Sharansky would even joke with the prison guards. Have we laughed these past few weeks?  If not, let’s think of ways to bring that into our lives.
  4. Hold onto your hobbies – singing, music, drawing. When I checked in with our 7th graders, I was so impressed that many of them are learning new hobbies and skills. Hold onto your hobbies.
  5. Feel your connections. We are part of a big people with mutual heart, future and mission.

As you respond to this moment, hold onto the wisdom of our tradition. Know we combat loneliness as we hear the wisdom and voices of the past speak to our hearts.  Know that being alone can open our hearts and minds to insights that are extraordinary.  Know that we overcome loneliness by holding onto values of connectedness, tradition, vision and kindness.  My prayer is that we emerge from this moment with deeper empathy for those who suffer and renewed kinship with fellow Jews and all humanity. May we understand that being alone does not mean being lonely.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach