Monday, September 9, 2013

Rosh HaShanah - Loneliness, by Rabbi Scott Perlo


Loneliness - A Discussion
Led by Rabbi Scott Perlo

I think this issue of loneliness is very important. Not just a psychological issue or a sort of functional issue - as in, why aren't there simply more bodies around me so that I can can not be alone - but a spiritual issue.

In order to explain why, I want us to learn a piece of Torah together. This story actually shows up in a few places in Torah in different versions, which is the Rabbis' way of telling you that they meant it.

It’s taught in the sources, “A spring of water that belongs to citizens of a particular city—if there’s resource scarcity, the citizens of that city take priority over strangers [getting access to that spring] ...
Yehuda, from the city of Hutza, hid in a cave for three days trying to understand the reasoning of this law  - why it is that the lives of those who live in this city take precedence of the lives of those who live in another city? (that is, he tried to find the Bible verse from which the law was derived.)
He then went to Rabbi Yosi ben Halafta and said, “I hid in a cave for three days, trying to understand the reasoning of this law, why it is that that the lives of those who live in this city take precedence of the lives of those who live in another?
Rabbi Yose called over Rabbi Aba (his son), and said, “what’s the reason?”
Rabbi Aba quoted the book of Joshua to him, “’These cities – each had their pasture land and their surroundings.’  First is listed the city, then the pasture land, then the surroundings [implying an order of precedence – a straightforward answer (for a rabbi)].”
Rabbi Yose said to Yehuda, “what happened to you that you don’t learn with a partner?”
JERUSALEM TALMUD, Masekhet Nedarim 11, Law 1

There was a guy named Yehuda from Hutza. Luckily his name kind of rhymed, and that's how people knew him. Anyways, one day he learned a law. And that law was this: If there is a spring that belongs to citizens of a particular city, and there is some kind of emergency situation - a drought, a storm, something that causes widespread scarcity - the people of that city have priority to the water. First they get their turn, then people from the next city over do.

Now it certainly seems that our boy, Yehuda from Hutza (whatup) hated this law. He couldn't understand it. Now I'm just guessing, but my guess is that he couldn't understand why it was that the people from this city were better, somehow, than the people from one city over. Why is it that my people get the water first? We are all equal, he said, we are all of equal worth. We are all of equal stature. We all deserve the water.

So he secluded himself as you can see, and spent three days in a cave trying to figure out where in the Bible the reasoning for this law came from. The Rabbis reason from the Bible, after all - it's all about the word of God. This isn't just common sense. It's Torah. That's the game.

Anyways, after three days, he strikes out. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. Frustrated, he comes back down from his cave, walks into the study house, and asks the rabbi the question that's been torturing him from three days. The rabbi, a very famous guy at the time, Rabbi Yosi ben Halafta, sort of snaps his fingers at his own son, Rabbi Aba, who gives the reference lickety-split.

Then Rabbi Yosi says the thing on which the entire story turns - the whole pivot, the whole point. He says, 'what happened to you that you don't learn with a partner." And with that, the story ends.

Now I am a rabbi, which means that I share these guys' particular brand of insanity, and hopefully can explain to you what's going on. Which is that Rabbi Yosi is pointing out that our man Judah from Hutza really has missed the whole point - not just of this law, but of what community is all about.

First, what he means is that by shutting yourself up in a cave, you deprived yourself of the benefit of others wisdom. Jews don't learn alone, and there are some nasty things said in the Talmud about what happens to people who do. If we're going to create castles in the air, we create those castles together. The Torah doesn't believe in learning that isn't shared, probed, tested, added to, asked about, asked from, questioned, approved of, disapproved of, but most importantly, put out into the world. And had Yehuda from Hutza not retreated to the recesses of his own mind, he would have had his answer in a heartbeat - to challenge or accept as he saw fit. He wouldn't have spent five days on something that could have lasted five minutes, and then they could have had a real discussion. Say a word for me - peshitta. That's obvious - peshitta, as we say when learning Talmud.

But there is a second level, and a deeper and more important one - just as central to this story. Another message. In fact, it's the real message. And that's this: Rabbi Yosi is saying, you, Yehudah, cave-dweller - the reason that you don't understand this law is that you have shut yourself up away from other people, from the people of your community. For you learn, and therefore think, and therefore reason, in loneliness. And for that reason you only get half the Torah of this moment.

For it is indeed true that everyone is equal, and the citizens of one city just as important as the citizens of another. But because you don't learn in a community, you haven't let yourself learn how your neighbors can matter to you. If you spent time with them, spent your life with them, shared in their triumphs and their failures, their births and their deaths, you would know. You wouldn't be friends with them all, nor even like them all - in fact you'd probably hate a fair percentage. But you would know what it was like to love them all. And when the bad times came, after your family, you'd know who to take care of first. For how could you turn away a person with whom you'd shared your life.

This Yehuda, is the Torah that you missed. This is the Torah that you cannot learn on your own.

I feel, so often, like Yehudah, for I am possessed of this obsession - the idea that I can do it all by myself. I can read it by myself, build it by myself, understand it on my own, create it on my own. And if I can't do it now, then by Google I'll figure out how to do it. I am educated, trained, professionalized, and privileged, and no one knows about living my life but me, and no one can tell me what's what, for I must be true to my own voice to the exclusion of others.

This is how I think. This is how I am. And the truth is that, at 34, what I feel is the immense yawp of the loneliness that we have created for ourselves. For I have everything, everything I could possibly ask for - except for enough people to share that everything with.

So many of us feel like this, and have for so long. That Vonnegut piece I gave you? That was written in 1974! Thirty years ago! And from everything I've read from Putnam, as well as those journalists, the problem is getting worse, not better.

My grandparents, of blessed memory, always wanted me to learn how to play bridge. It was so important to them. I never got it. I still have no idea how to play. They were not particularly educated people. They had few of the advantages that I enjoy - educationally, professionally, and otherwise. And the two of them were party animals. Social giants. They had a social life at 80 that puts mine to shame now - yours too, I might add.

I never got the bridge thing until now, of course, when I was preparing for this drash. What my grandfather was saying to me was, "learn how to be with people. Learn how to while away the hours. Learn not to be alone. Learn to share your life with others."

And for me, the only respite I have - and it's a serious one, is that I'm a member of an observant Jewish community, and on Shabbes we turn everything off and pray together. Which means that we eat together. Which means that we tell each other things, and show up to parties, and visit when people are sick, and show up for brises and babies and weddings. These are the people with whom I share my life - not just what I think, but that I experience life with them. And with them, I am not alone. Not because these are somehow unusual people. It's simply because we share our lives, our time - we experience together. And shared experience creates intimacy. And intimacy is the end of loneliness.

We need to take community more seriously. We need to figure out how to rebuild the social and spiritual infrastructure we've lost, especially in this city which is like heaven for the socially awkward. We need to reverse our natural inclinations and find each other again.

Only half the Torah lives inside of us, in our own, unique voice. The other half is inside of someone else, and our job is to go find it, no matter how long it takes us. This isn't about soulmates or likeminds or besties - it is about the simple and essential power of other people. We need to find that power again. It can save us.

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