what Judaism taught me about being alone
what_judaism_alone

What Judaism Taught Me About Being Alone

~ I was in grade five the first time a friend asked me to accompany her to the restroom. I was caught off guard at the strangeness of her request and prodded her for an explanation.
“I don’t want to go alone,” she replied. And to that, I had no reasonable follow up question, so I dropped what I was doing and accompanied her. ~

***

After Adam returned from naming the animals, he recognized, for the first time, that he was alone. In the very beginning, there was only G-d, the world, and one man. G-d did not create a world crawling with people, and only after Adam asked G-d for a companion was Chava created. Adam spends the early part of Bereishit alone in the garden with G-d; evidently, this is not how things were meant to be. When Adam noticed that he was lonely, he immediately took action.

This occurrence begs the question: can a connection with G-d fill the place of human interaction? Answers may vary… Jews are often described as having a special spark inside. Whether we acknowledge it or not, we each carry a piece of G-d with us wherever we go, in concordance with the verse, “made in His image.” This means that naturally, we desire a closeness with G-d, a relationship, perhaps a friendship of some sort. We’re often reassured that G-d is always with us and that we must strive to be one with our creator. However it is not uncommon to feel extremely lonely when embarking on this journey. This is why a relationship with G-d is simply not enough, we ourselves are not enough; we need other people as well.

When I was in seminary I described my relationship with G-d as an abusive one. I didn’t understand why I needed to be the one to put in all the effort. I never knew if my feelings of affection were returned, and I had no idea what I needed to do to make the relationship better. Looking back, I laugh at this conclusion and reflect on how little I knew about myself, and even more so, about Judaism itself. How egotistical of me to assume that I deserved a clear and direct response from my creator. A relationship with the infinite is not the same as one with another human being, although we use our relationships with other people as ongoing parallels. I learned that in a relationship with G-d, it is important to recognize that it’s okay for us to be “the reacher.”

Yet part of me still longs to feel a connection with G-d on a human level. Can G-d keep me company? Can I hang out with Hashem? We compare our relationship with G-d to that of one with a parent or a lover, but can G-d and I be friends? Is that a normal thing to want? These questions have been extremely relevant recently as I’ve contemplated traveling alone for the first time. With a week off between jobs, I’ve been itchy to go somewhere new. I have friends who travel for months at a time without a consistent traveling partner. Many have told me that in the beginning things are lonely, but after a while you just get used to it. You keep busy, you journal, you take photographs. But to me, traveling is the most meaningful when I have another person to share it with.

Human beings are programmed to seek out connections, and to pursue meaningful interactions.“Hi, what’s your name,” often translates into “Hi, please understand me.” Talking to G-d means skipping the small talk as it simply isn’t necessary. When we talk to G-d we don’t waste any time. We go right into what’s real and we don’t beat around the bush. Perhaps traveling alone simply means skipping the small talk. It means optimizing on the time you have to truly feel connected, without the constant background noise of other people’s voices. But it’s so much more than just that. It’s very easy to became highly dependent on the communities we belong to. The inside jokes, the familiarity, the comfort of the routine. We all know how scary it can be to get “stuck in our heads.” We’ve all experienced loneliness, and for the most part, we try to avoid it at all costs. In fact, loneliness has an inherently negative connotation, but have we ever thought about why that is? To quote a friend, “shouldn’t it be safe inside our heads?” Shouldn’t we be able to be alone with ourselves? If anything, shouldn’t loneliness be a good thing, a happy thing?

It is interesting how Judaism implores us to spend the most intimate and emotional moments of our lives with other people. When a loved one passes away we are forced to be encompassed by endless waves of other humans. The first week after a couple marries they are constantly surrounded by family and friends when perhaps they’re dying to just be alone. Even the experience of praying can be severely hindered when a morning minyan davens so fast that if you come five minutes late, you’ve already missed all of psukei d’zemira. On Yom Kippur, the day of all days, we’re forced to cry out to Hashem from the depths of our hearts, but we must do it together as a community. Most of the time I find a great deal of comfort in this notion of togetherness, but sometimes a community can suck the spirituality out of Judaism without even meaning to. Sometimes being a part of the community means compromising on your relationship with G-d.

Which is why it’s important to know how to be alone. Who are we when no one’s around? A teacher in my seminary loved to give the example of a household where a woman is in charge of the kitchen (cringe). Technically, she’s responsible for knowing the laws of kashrut, and if she makes a mistake, it is only between her and G-d. No harm no foul, if a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it… Or if more than a 1/60 of something dairy falls into the cholent and no one tastes it… You see where I’m going with this.

I wonder what kind of person I’ll be in a city where no one knows me. How will I treat other people? How will I treat my creator? How will I treat myself? I’ll be forced to learn better self talk, more patience, more kindness, more emunah.

At the end of the day I am a firm believer in community. I love people, all people… most people… I believe in praying as a group. I believe in getting to know someone outside of the daunting realms of small talk. I visit the sick, I learn with a chevruta, and I was once a witness at a wedding. I believe that we should view the Torah as a book of of instructions — one that teaches us how to interact with all the other humans in the world.

And I also believe in spending time alone.
For creating an entirely unique relationship with the Infinite, one that is exclusively and entirely ours, is dependent on being away from other people.
And with that, I booked my ticket.