Rabbi David Walk
One of my favorite websites is PsychologyToday.com. I often get both material and inspiration from this site. So, it wasn't unusual for me to check out the articles there while preparing to write this article. I knew that I was going to write about being alone, therefore before reporting on rabbinic positions I thought I'd see what the world of psychology has to say about this issue. Not surprisingly there is a diversity of opinions. There are articles which describe the intense fears of loneliness which many experience. There are also articles which document benefits which accrue to people who spend considerable time alone. In a piece entitled Sweet Solitude, Dr. Bella DePaulo of UC Santa Barbara reports that people who spend moderate amounts of time alone show certain psychological benefits like less stress and are more creative. However, she reports that in order to benefit from solitude, the individual must be able to draw on inner resources to find meaning in a situation in which external supports are lacking. We'll find a similar mixed bag when discussing the rabbinic positions.
The heart of this week's Torah reading is the series of blessings proclaimed by Bilaam over the Jewish nation. There is a certain ambivalence in our tradition both about these blessings and Bilaam himself. We are impressed by Bilaam's power of prophecy, but disgusted by his willingness to sell himself to the highest bidder for these sacred services. In terms of the blessings themselves we are moved by the majesty of the poetry and faculty of observation displayed. It was been suggested that at least parts of these poems be included in our daily liturgy, and it has become customary to recite one of these verses (How goodly are your tents, O Jacob) when entering a synagogue. On the other hand, we question his sincerity in this enterprise. It has been suggested that really all these blessings contained the seeds of curses as well, and that ultimately he was out to get us (Sanhedrin 105b).
The particular passage that I want to analyze is the second part of his first blessing. Upon his looking down onto the Jewish encampment, he declares: From the rocky peaks I see them, from the heights I view them. Behold, a people who dwells apart, and will not be reckoned among the nations (Numbers 23:9). Before I get into the issue of whether this loneliness is positive or negative, there is a controversy about how to translate the last phrase. Does it mean that we separate ourselves or does it imply that the world segregates us? Historically both have happened. Jews have often congregated together. However, there were times when ghettoes were forced upon us. Today,
Most commentators consider being alone and apart a positive thing, and therefore an unequivocal blessing. Rashi (1035-1104) says that this is the legacy their forefathers gained for them to dwell alone, as Onkelos translates it is a nation that is alone destined to inherit the world, and they will not perish along with the other nations, for it says, "for I shall make an end of all the nations…" (Jer. 30:11). Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra (1089-1164) says it means that they don't assimilate. Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (1194-1270) says it means that they maintain their own integrity. Clearly, many rabbinic authorities viewed dwelling alone as splendid isolation, good for our survival both spiritual and physical.
As part of Rabbi Jonathan Lord Sacks series called Credo and published in the London Times on June 23, 2012, the Chief Rabbi praised the concept of taking the road less traveled (and he didn't give credit to
However, Rav Sacks last year (Covenant and Conversation-5771-Balak) wrote a scathing attack on Jews who resign themselves to be a nation apart and alone. In what he referred to as an explosion of light in the brain, the good Rabbi claimed to see how dangerous this phrase is, and how close it runs the risk of being a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you define yourself as the people that dwells alone, you are likely to find yourself alone. Finally, he concluded that it is not a safe place to be. He then makes a number of points which I found inspiring and, almost convincing. The Torah decries being alone (It is not good that man is alone [Genesis 2:18].). He points out that to be a Jew is to be loved by God; it is not to be hated by Gentiles. And, finally, he points out that to be different is not necessarily to be alone. Indeed, it is only by being a unique nation that we contribute to humankind what we alone can give. To be a light unto the world we must be amongst it, and, therefore this is not a blessing but a curse. Bilaam would torpedo the great vessel of our mission.
I am moved by Rabbi Sacks great vision of Jewish destiny. However, I am also nagged at by the views of other great observers, that there are advantages in our isolation. Of course this brings me back to the comments of Dr. DePaulo that periodic alone time is beneficial. We can't see segregation as a goal, but as a tool, and then it can be extremely advantageous, perhaps even a salvation. When we are isolated, let's make the most of it, to recharge our spiritual and ethical batteries to make a real difference for humanity when we emerge from the shadows for our grand entrance on the universal stage.
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