In one of the opening statements of his essay “The Lonely Man of Faith,” Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik writes, “The nature of the dilemma can be stated in a three-word sentence. I am lonely.”
He goes on to explain that he is not lonely in the sense of not having friends and loved ones. That would be categorized as being “alone.” He is lonely, as in misunderstood by others, as in having thoughts and feelings that others don’t share, see, or relate to.
He relates this loneliness to the verse of “For my father and mother have abandoned me, and G-d has gathered me in” (Tehillim 27). I don’t even have my parents to lean on — all I have is G-d.
It is a fantastic essay.
Different life choices, and in particular some professions, can lead anyone to a similar kind of feeling. Several times have I heard Dr. David Pelcovitz tell the story of the Rebbe RaShab, the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe (Sholom Dovber Schneersohn), who wrote in his diary of feeling similarly alone. He describes how he went to a famous doctor (possibly Freud) for help. The guidance he was given, which he found helpful, was to ask people for feedback on the work he was doing, as a rebbe, in helping them.
How does one fill the existential loneliness one might feel? For Rabbi Soloveitchik, having family, friends, colleagues, students, helped counter feeling alone. But it could not undo the loneliness. Only G-d could do that.
It’s a fascinating concept that King David introduces us to: when parents are gone, G-d gathers me in.
But the truth is that this teaching is one of the oldest teachings in Parshat Terumah.
On the verse “They shall make for Me a sanctuary and I will dwell in them,” the literal interpretation or translation is hard to understand. The verse should say, “And when you make a sanctuary for Me, I will dwell amongst you.”
Most divrei Torah on this parsha that focus on this verse follow the interpretation that the creation of a sanctuary will translate to G-d being found in the hearts, minds, and bodies of the Israelites.
And I think that is really what Rabbi Soloveitchik was getting at. How does a person create a sanctuary of G-d in oneself, in order to, with G-d’s help, overcome loneliness?
Each of us ought to ask ourselves, does G-d dwell in me?
For those who are naturally more spiritual, perhaps the answer is an easy “Yes.” For others, each of us can hopefully find a way that “G-d’s presence in me” is tangible and noticeable.
What does it take? I think one important step is tapping into our tefillah experience. Of course, finding the strength to put away the phone during the week is paramount! Between the words of the siddur, the words of Psalms, and just the atmosphere we can easily create in the right space and with the right group of people, we can let the words we say penetrate our hearts. I find the very familiar songs of Adon Olam and Yigdal to be so profound in helping us achieve that — except that we tend to view them as children’s songs. I have found sitting down, and reading the English while reciting the familiar Hebrew words, to be an absolute game-changer in remembering to Whom we are praying.
In explaining why Aharon became the High Priest over Moshe, the Slonimer Rebbe noted there are two kinds of humility. Moshe’s type came from an understanding of the infinity of G-d, and realizing that man is nothing in comparison. Aharon’s humility came from going through a broken heart, through feeling oneself as the lowest of the low, only able to stand in the presence of the Almighty because of G-d’s graciousness in accepting teshuvah. This is something Moshe couldn’t relate to. He hadn’t sinned with the Golden Calf. Aharon had.
If we can approach G-d with either kind of humility, we are well on our way of having G-d dwell in us.
Rabbi Soloveitchik’s loneliness was a type which should challenge each of us. How can I build to have such a relationship with G-d? How can I make my regular tefillah, my learning, my dedication, my service of G-d turn into an insurance policy, that I build on and continue to foster, so that when I need G-d, He carries me? Because I know if He is carrying me, if He dwells in me, I will never feel alone.