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09/27/2020 01:36:21 PM


Rabbi Barry Gelman

Isolated But Never Alone

09/27/2020 11:04:46 AM

Rabbi Barry Gelman

Back in April, families who lost loved ones fighting in the IDF expressed how hard it was to not be able to go to the  military cemetery. 

Sivan Rahav-Meir noted that these families lamented not being able to invite friends and relatives over.  

This is not the only example of folks feeling alone and isolated in the recent months, but it is surely one of the most poignant.

I can only imagine how difficult it was to observe Yom Hazikaron alone, in isolation.

In a profound way, Yom Kippur encapsulates a sense of remoteness and distance from others. 

Listen to the way that the Torah describes the service of the Kohein on Yom Kippur.

‘And no man shall be in the Tent of Meeting when he comes to bring atonement in the Holy of Holies until he comes out. And he shall bring atonement for himself, for his household, and for the entire congregation of Israel’ (Leviticus 16:17).

On its own, this description is nothing special, but we must remember that it comes right after Aharon’s two sons died.

וַיְדַבֵּ֤ר יְהוָה֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה אַחֲרֵ֣י מ֔וֹת שְׁנֵ֖י בְּנֵ֣י אַהֲרֹ֑ן בְּקָרְבָתָ֥ם לִפְנֵי־יְהוָ֖ה וַיָּמֻֽתוּ׃

The LORD spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of the LORD.

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יְהוָ֜ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֗ה דַּבֵּר֮ אֶל־אַהֲרֹ֣ן אָחִיךָ֒ וְאַל־יָבֹ֤א בְכָל־עֵת֙ אֶל־הַקֹּ֔דֶשׁ מִבֵּ֖ית לַפָּרֹ֑כֶת אֶל־פְּנֵ֨י הַכַּפֹּ֜רֶת אֲשֶׁ֤ר עַל־הָאָרֹן֙ וְלֹ֣א יָמ֔וּת כִּ֚י בֶּֽעָנָ֔ן אֵרָאֶ֖ה עַל־הַכַּפֹּֽרֶת׃

“The LORD said to Moses: Tell your brother Aaron that he is not to come at will into the Shrine behind the curtain, in front of the cover that is upon the ark, lest he die; for I appear in the cloud over the cover.”

בְּזֹ֛את יָבֹ֥א אַהֲרֹ֖ן אֶל־הַקֹּ֑דֶשׁ בְּפַ֧ר בֶּן־בָּקָ֛ר לְחַטָּ֖את וְאַ֥יִל לְעֹלָֽה׃

“Thus only shall Aaron enter the Shrine: with a bull of the herd for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering.”

Just when Aharon may have needed to be with others, he is told that he must isolate himself.  

The isolation of the Kohein Gadol, however, started long before he actually went into the Kodsah Hakedoshim.

The Mishnah in Masechet Yoma describes, at great length and with great drama the process leading up to Yom Kippur. 

...שִׁבְעַת יָמִים קֹדֶם יוֹם הַכִּפּוּרִים מַפְרִישִׁין כֹּהֵן גָּדוֹל מִבֵּיתוֹ לְלִשְׁכַּת פַּלְהֶדְרִין

Seven days before Yom HaKippurim they remove the high priest from his house to the chamber of the counselors ...

The Kohein Gadol is isolated / sequestered / essentially quarantined in preparation for the Avodah in the Beit Hamikdash. 

I can only imagine how the Kohein Gadol felt. All alone...with so much pressure.

Isolation is hard. I suspect that lots of people do not like being alone. 

Rabbi Abraham Twerski recalled the time he learned how much he disliked being alone with himself for too long.

“He decided to spend some time at a health spa to treat his chronic low back pain.  Here is his description: On the first day at the spa, I was placed in a whirlpool bath in a small cubicle. It was nothing less than paradise. I relaxed in the warm water, whose whirling streams gently relaxed my whole body. I was at peace and there was nothing to disturb that peace. After about five or six very enjoyable minutes, I emerged from the whirlpool, telling the attendant how relaxing the experience had been. To my astonishment he said, "You can't get out yet, sir. The treatment here requires that you stay in the whirlpool for 25 minutes."

I returned to the tub, but not to an enjoyable experience. Every minute lasted for a painful eternity and after five minutes I could no longer take it. On my second exodus, the attendant informed me that unless I completed the requisite 25 minutes, I could not continue to the next phase of treatment. Not wishing to have spent my money in vain, I returned for 15 minutes of absolute torture.”

Why don’t we like being alone? Why is it that as soon as we get into a car we put on the radio or a podcast? What is it about being alone with our own thoughts that terrifies us.

Rabbi Twerski came to a stunning conclusion:

“A bit of investigation with my patients confirmed my hypothesis: many people are indeed incapable of tolerating themselves, because they harbor self-directed feelings of negativity...I believe that this sorry state of affairs is a result of a distortion of the self-concept. In other words, these people are in actuality fine, competent and likable people. The problem is that they are unaware of this reality.” 

I think that one of the purposes of the focus on Yom Kippur on the Kohein Gadol’s isolation is to serve as an antidote to this. 

Let’s not forget that the “Bible tells us that God created a single individual, a lonely being.”

וַיִּיצֶר֩ יְהוָ֨ה אֱלֹהִ֜ים אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֗ם עָפָר֙ מִן־הָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה וַיִּפַּ֥ח בְּאַפָּ֖יו נִשְׁמַ֣ת חַיִּ֑ים וַֽיְהִ֥י הָֽאָדָ֖ם לְנֶ֥פֶשׁ חַיָּֽה׃

“the LORD God formed the person from the dust of the earth. He blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the person became a living being.”

This fact emphasizes that each individual - YOU - contributes something unique and is irreplaceable. In Rabbi Soloveitchik’s words: “Judaism has always looked upon the individual as if he were a little a natural being exists once in an eternity.”

Consider what the Kohein Gadol accomplishes on Yom Kippur. He secures atonement for himself, his family and ALL of Bnei Yisrael….all on his own.

I believe the message here is clear. Like the Kohein Gadol, even when alone, we are capable of great things.

We can do great things because each and everyone of us is great

I just started reading Ilana Kurshan’s memoir titled : “If All The Seas Were Ink”. It is an account of her journey into Daf Yomi, the practice of studying a page of Talmud each day. 

After a divorce after a very brief first marriage, Ilana found herself alone in Israel with few friends and no family. She describes her aloneness and her small apartment: “My apartment was tiny...with a kitchen counter and mini fridge against one wall, a bathroom in the opposite corner and a desk along the adjacent wall beneath my only window. There was no couch or armchair or other place to sit, but I so rarely had visitors that it didn’t seem to matter. Most nights I fell asleep reading with the lights on, my novel collapsed over my face like a tent…”  here her only companions were her books. But then something happened. In an effort to develop a sense of purpose she dove into the study of Daf Yomi, a demanding practice. 

In a talk she gave to UOS members last week she described how she even continued studying right after giving birth to twins. She said that her hands were always full because she was holding the babies, but she found a way. 

For Ialana Kurshon, her loneliness produced greatness. The book that she wrote, one born, at first, out of loneliness, has invited and inspired hundreds of others to study Daf Yomi as well. 

On Yom Kippur, we are reminded that we too, like the Kohein Gadol can accomplish greatness. It reminds us that Yom Kippur is not just about remorse over our past sins, but it is also about what’s next for us. 

We should ask ourselves: What will my next great accomplishment be? What project will I take on? Think you cannot do it, think again. Remember what the Koheim Gadol accomplished. Remember that God first created one, singular, lonely individual. Each and every one of us is an entire world. Time alone with ourselves, in a sauna or in our living room, should not scare us...because we are great!

Yet, there is something else we can learn from the Kohein Gadol’s Yom Kippur Journey. Even as our tradition emphasizes self worth - we do sometimes feel alone. To this our Torah teaches that we are never really alone. Hashem Ro’i - God is my shepherd, we say in Tehillim

In the Mussaf of Yom Kippur we recite the following lines

וְכָל בָּאֵי עוֹלָם יַעַבְרוּן לְפָנֶֽיךָ

All mankind pass before You

כִּבְנֵי מָרוֹ.

like young sheep.

It is true that the image of sheep leaves us with the feeling of helplessness, but there is another important element inherent in the comparison to sheep. If we are sheep, then there is a shepherd. There is someone in charge. In this prayer we are asking God to take care of us and to guide us because deep down we know that we are really not alone. Passing before God like sheep is not simply a technical process of passing by an anonymous shepherd, but rather, a shepherd that knows each and everyone of their sheep well and who cares about them.

כְּבַקָּרַת רוֹעֶה עֶדְרוֹ. מַעֲבִיר צֹאנוֹ תַּֽחַת שִׁבְטוֹ. כֵּן תַּעֲבִיר וְתִסְפֹּר וְתִמְנֶה. וְתִפְקֹד נֶֽפֶשׁ כָּל חָי.

As a shepherd inspects his flock, making his sheep pass under his rod, so do You cause to pass, count, number, and review the soul of every living being…

Today we focus on God’s personal touch. 

Consider this.  Our greatest possession, the Torah was given to Moshe when he was in a quarantine. Moshe spent forty days and forty nights on Har Sinai alone, but not really alone. Sometimes it is the solitude that reveals God to us. When all of the other things in our life are removed, we have an easier time recognizing God. 

This is what Yom Kippur is about. No food, no drink, no marital relations...these life affirming activities - important and holy in their own right - are forbidden on this day. One day a year, we dedicate our physical beings - to the extent possible to being alone...with God. 

The Talmud could not be any clearer in its description of our closeness to God on this day. 

אָמַר רַבִּי עֲקִיבָא, אַשְׁרֵיכֶם יִשְׂרָאֵל, לִפְנֵי מִי אַתֶּם מִטַּהֲרִין, וּמִי מְטַהֵר אֶתְכֶם,  אֲבִיכֶם שֶׁבַּשָּׁמַיִם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר, וְזָרַקְתִּי עֲלֵיכֶם מַיִם טְהוֹרִים וּטְהַרְתֶּם. וְאוֹמֵר, מִקְוֵה יִשְׂרָאֵל ה', מַה מִּקְוֶה מְטַהֵר אֶת הַטְּמֵאִים, אַף הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא מְטַהֵר אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל

Rabbi Akiva said: How fortunate are you, Israel; before Whom are you purified, and Who purifies you? It is your Father in Heaven, as it is stated: “And I will sprinkle purifying water upon you, and you shall be purified” (Ezekiel 36:25). And it says: “The ritual bath of Israel is God” (Jeremiah 17:13). Just as a ritual bath purifies the impure, so too, the Holy One, Blessed be He, purifies Israel.

Of course, not only is God always with us, but we must always remember that we are part of a project called the Jewish people and in that sense, we are never alone.  

I recently had the opportunity to read parts of Natan Sharansky’s new book, co-authored by my friend Gil Troy. The book is called “Never Alone”.

In the introduction, they record a conversation they had with another collaborator in the book named David.

‘“David exclaimed. You’ve got your title. After seventy-five years of ‘never again,’ we must remember that when you belong to the Jewish people you are ‘never alone.’”

This idea is what kept Natan Sharansky sane and alive during his eight years in the Soviet Gulag. 

In another telling and emotional part of the book, Sharansky recalls a trip back to Moscow many years after his release when he returned to the courtroom where he was sentenced to prison and hard labor. 

These words testify to the power of believing that we belong!

Finally, while it is true that each and everyone is amazing and it is true that we are never really alone, but still...some people feel alone. There is one more part of the Yom Kippur service that is instructive. 

To me, one of the most interesting aspects of the Avodah is the last part. 

After the Kohein Gadol accomplishes the great feat of achieving forgiveness for all of the Jewish people and after he has been in solitude with God...even after both of those great glorifications of being alone, he ends his day surrounded by family and friends.

We read in the Mishna and in the account of the Yom Kippur service in our Machzor:

וּמְלַוִּין אוֹתוֹ עַד בֵּיתוֹ. וְיוֹם טוֹב הָיָה עוֹשֶׂה לְאוֹהֲבָיו בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁיָּצָא בְשָׁלוֹם מִן הַקֹּדֶשׁ:

And they would accompany him to his house. And he would make a day of festivity for his friends whenever he came out of the Holy [of Holies] in peace.

He ends the day surrounded by loved one. When I think about the arc of the day, I can’t help but be moved by this. 

I can imagine that the end of the Kohein Gadol’s day could have gone differently. The Kohein Gadol could have finished the avodah, changed out of his work clothes and went home. We would have hailed it as modesty. But that is not the end of the tory. There is a gathering. I am tempted to argue that the gathering is part of the Avodah. After all, it is stated in the Mishnayot that details that day’s obligations.

It is true that God started creation with a single being, but soon after that Go declared: 

לֹא־ט֛וֹב הֱי֥וֹת הָֽאָדָ֖ם לְבַדּ֑וֹ 

“It is not good for a person to be alone; 

What this amounts to is that Yom Kippur is a day of loneliness and togetherness.  The Kohein Gadol must spend part of the day alone in order to reach the greatest heights, but,  he must also end the day in the company of others. If any of these two ingredients is missing then the Avodah is incomplete. 

Some of you may know that I am a big fan of the television show The West Wing. Leo McGarry, President Bartlet’s Chief of Staff offered the following advice to Josh Lyman while Josh was going through a particularly hard time and felt that no one could help him. Leo, who had also been through hard times offers to help Josh.  Here is what he says:

“This guy's walking down a street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep, he can't get out. A doctor passes by, and the guy shouts up, "Hey you, can you help me out?" The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a priest comes along, and the guy shouts up "Father, I'm down in this hole, can you help me out?" The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a friend walks by. "Hey Joe, it's me, can you help me out?" And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, "Are you stupid? Now we're both down here." The friend says, "Yeah, but I've been down here before, and I know the way out."

We all know people who feel alone. Some could be physically isolated while others may be in the presence of others, but still feel abandoned. 

The only real way to help is to be there.The good news is that since most of us have probably felt lonely at times in our life, we know just how to help get others out of the hole. 

We have to be the friend in this story...we have to be Leo McGarry and get into the hole with our friends. 

We have a Talmudic example of Leo McGarry, it is Mashiach. Pay attention to this powerful teaching. 

אמר ליה אימת אתי משיח אמר ליה זיל שייליה לדידיה והיכא יתיב אפיתחא דקרתא ומאי סימניה יתיב ביני עניי סובלי חלאים וכולן שרו ואסירי בחד זימנא איהו שרי חד ואסיר חד אמר דילמא מבעינא דלא איעכב

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said to Elijah: When will the Messiah come? Elijah said to him: Go ask him. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi asked: And where is he sitting? Elijah said to him: At the entrance of the city of Rome. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi asked him: And what is his identifying sign by means of which I can recognize him? Elijah answered: He sits among the poor who suffer from illnesses. 

Who is the Mashiach - who is our saviour? The one who sits with the needy...the one who gets into the hole...

One of the grieving parents who was unable to mark Yom Hazikaron with loved ones. Hit on this very idea when he said: “In a certain sense, during this time of remembrance, we have all been “high priests.” We have been very alone, but within our isolation we have thought about everyone else. We are physically connected both to those who are distant to us in this world and to those who are present in the next.

The isolation of the Kohein Gadol on Yom Kippur reminds us of three essential ideas. 

1. We are - all of us - great. We should be comfortable with ourselves and alswsy know that we are a world unto ourselves. We do not need others to provide self worth.

2. Even if we feel alone - we can reach out to God. We are sheep and He is our shepard. Hashem Ro’i - God is may Shephard - Lo Echsar - therefore, I lack nothing.

3. Even acknowledging these things for ourselves, others we know, may still feel alone. That signals our obligation to get into the hole with them and use whatever we needed to help ourselves in order to help others.

Shel Silverstein, the author of the Giving Tree, wrote a poem - titled ’The Little Boy and the Old man.’ 

Said the little boy, sometimes I drop my spoon.

Said the little old man, I do that too.

The little boy whispered, I wet my pants.

I do too, laughed the old man.

Said the little boy, I often cry.

The old man nodded. So do I.

But worst of all, said the boy,

it seems grown-ups don’t pay attention to me.

And he felt the warm wrinkled, old hand.

I know what you mean, said the little old man.

We are all united in this reality of isolation - but we can make sure that no one ever feels alone.

Tue, May 18 2021 7 Sivan 5781