Surgeon General Vivek Murtha recently issued an advisory on the public health crisis of loneliness. Even before the Covid pandemic, Americans reported enduring periods of profound loneliness. Murtha’s report calls for a renewed effort toward social connections. Judaism offers insights into this challenge and some opportunities to combat loneliness.
From the start of the Torah, we learn that loneliness is not healthy. In Genesis 2:18 God said, “It is not good for humans to be alone; I will make a fitting helper for the man.” Pirke Avot 1:6 directs that we acquire for ourselves a friend. The rabbis understood the desperate condition that is loneliness. In tractate Taanit of the Babylonian Talmud we learn the story of Honi HaMe’aggel, the famed circle drawer. He fell asleep for seventy years and when he woke no one recognized him. He said to everyone he met, “I am Ḥoni HaMe’aggel.” They did not believe him. Ḥoni became so upset that he prayed for mercy and died. Talmud quotes Rava who said: “This explains the folk saying that people say: Either friendship or death, as one who has no friends is better off dead.” Judaism values human connection.
Yet, Judaism also asks that we make time to disconnect. There are periods in our life when we should be separate and apart, even alone. The metaphor often used is that we should retreat into the wilderness, BaMidbar.
Transformative experiences happen in the wilderness and when we are alone. Alone in the wilderness, Moses saw the burning bush and heard God. At Sinai, Torah was given and Moses ascended the mountain unaccompanied. Hagar heard God only when alone, having sat down a bowshot away from her suffering child. Jacob had an experience of angels and of wrestling with God while alone in the wilderness. Even the Moabite prophet Balaam seeks God’s counsel by stepping out alone in the wilderness.
Alone in the wilderness, the Prophet Elijah found God in the still small voice. While the wilderness may seem desolate or empty, the wilderness offers the opportunity for better reception in hearing God. As the Hasidic story goes, the small boy who demanded that his father let him pray in the forest explained, God may be the same everywhere, but I am not. In the wilderness, we have fewer distractions. In the wilderness, each person may connect with their truest, most refined selves. And in the wilderness, we experience the potentiality of being alone.
Bamidbar, the fourth book of the Torah opens with the words “God spoke to Moses in the wilderness.” God speaking hyperlinks us to the story of Elijah who fled from the evil King Ahab and hid in a cave. There he sat, alone, meditating. In 1 Kings 19, Elijah perceives God when he finds stillness, both in the world around him and within himself. We too are apt to find God when we can withdraw from the distractions, whether we are in the Sinai, the forest, or in the solitude of our homes. Accordingly, when asked of an experience of God, many report that they felt the divine when alone in nature.
Our tradition asks us to invite God into our thoughts. As the psalmist wrote, keep God before you always. God will be our companion in our solitude. We can mitigate the sense of loneliness if we shift our attention to seeking God and delighting in God as our creator. Solitude is the fertile soil in which God’s presence can grow in our lives.
The Hasidic masters encouraged us to make time for solitude. They instituted the spiritual practice of hitbodedut, going out into the forest or fields alone to seek conversation with God. Alone and away from distractions, we can best set aside our physical desires and repair our bad character traits. In our aloneness, we can moderate the concerns that muddle our minds and stain our souls.
Loneliness is a health crisis in America. Judaism has long recognized the need for companionship. Yet, the Torah also offers a corrective for loneliness, by creating a spiritual practice out of being alone. Both friendship and solitude are critical for our physical, mental, and spiritual health.
Rabbi Evan Krame