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Parshat V’etchanan        July 24, 2021

Shabbat Shalom.

Ah, look at all the lonely people
Ah, look at all the lonely people
Eleanor Rigby
Died in the church and was buried along with her name
Nobody came
Father McKenzie
Wiping the dirt from his hands as he walks from the grave
No one was saved
All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?

The Beatles song, “Elinor Rigby” has long haunted me. It was always hard for me to imagine that kind of loneliness. I grew up in a large family; we were five children, and my father was one of four. There were always siblings and cousins around. I could be alone if I wanted to, but usually we were a loud, boisterous crowd. As I grew up my world became even more crowded; I had a Hebrew School class; there were people who I davened with in synagogue; there were teachers and classmates at my public school and eventually, there was USY, my youth group that attached me to teens all over this country. It seemed that I could never really be alone. 

Elinore Rigby introduced me to an entirely different experience. No friends, no family, nobody in your life who really cared. When I became a Rabbi, I began to meet such people. Even in the Jewish community, there seemed to be those who somehow slid between the cracks, people whom even their fellow Jews forgot. I was an assistant Rabbi in my first congregation and only a year after my ordination I was confronted with my first suicide. A man who was at minyan a few days a week, killed himself. My senior Rabbi was beside himself thinking that there was a person in need who had slipped under his radar. I was bewildered; how could someone I know not reach out for help? I just didn’t understand the depression and the despair. 
When I was in St. Paul, I was told that a woman had died in California and had no living relatives. I had no record of her. The funeral was in our cemetery; she was to be buried next to her husband who died years ago. While everything was paid for, she had no children, nobody to attend her service, just me and the Funeral Director. I asked my minyan to come to the funeral. Her Jewish community did not let her down. We had a minyan at the graveside. She was not alone at the end. I did notice that on her husband’s grave sat a lone rock; someone had visited him at some time. A few months later I was at the cemetery for a different funeral. As I walked past her grave, there was a second stone on the monument. Clearly somebody remembered her.

I came across an opinion piece in the New York Times by columnist Michelle Goldberg. It was called, “Loneliness is Breaking America”. She wrote:
But after reading an article adapted from “Frankly, We Did Win This Election: The Inside Story of How Trump Lost” by Michael C. Bender, a Wall Street Journal reporter, ... What caught my attention wasn’t his reporting on White House disarray and Trump’s terrifying impulses — some details are new, but that story is familiar. Rather, I was fascinated by Bender’s account of the people who followed Trump from rally to rally like authoritarian Deadheads.
Bender’s description of these Trump superfans, who called themselves the “front-row Joes,” is sympathetic but not sentimental. Above all, he captures their pre-Trump loneliness.
“Many were recently retired and had time on their hands and little to tie them to home,” writes Bender. “A handful never had children. Others were estranged from their families.” Throwing themselves into Trump’s movement, they found a community and a sense of purpose. “Saundra’s life had become bigger with Trump,” he says of a Michigan woman who did odd jobs on the road to fund her obsession.” … It’s not just Trumpism that feeds on isolation. Consider QAnon, which has morphed from an internet message board hoax into a quasi-religion. In his book “The Storm Is Upon Us: How QAnon Became a Movement, Cult, and Conspiracy Theory of Everything,” the journalist Mike Rothschild shows how central a sense of digital community is to QAnon’s appeal. “It’s one of the reasons why baby boomers have fallen in with Q to such a surprising degree — many are empty nesters, on their own, or retired,” he writes. Michelle Goldberg goes on to say… “It’s also likely a reason that QAnon started expanding in tandem with Covid lockdowns, finding new life among Instagram influencers, yoga practitioners and suburban moms. Suddenly people all over America had their social lives obliterated, and many mothers found themselves trapped in domestic isolation beyond anything imagined by Betty Friedan. Stuck at home, they had more time to get sucked into internet rabbit holes. QAnon, which came to merge with Covid-trutherism, gave them an explanation for their misery and villains to blame.”


When cults and conspiracies are all you have, you can’t just decide one day to take it all away
Shades of Elinor Rigby.

We read this week, the words of the Shema: Hear you Israelites, The Lord our God is the Lord Alone.  It seems only God gets to be alone. Our community, our Jewish Community, is always with us, to celebrate with us the joyful moments in life, and to be with us in the inevitable days of sickness and mourning. New England may glamourize the lone, rugged farmer who is completely self-reliant. Western states may glorify the lone cowboy who rides the range alone, with just a saddle and a horse to accompany him. Judaism would have no such imagery. We are always part of a community. We are always responsible for each other. We know from the very beginning of the Bible, that is not good for a man to be alone.

When we celebrate a birth, a Bar/Bat Mitzvah, a wedding, any lifecycle event, it is not finished until we have a meal of celebration with our community. This is the real loss that we have experienced from COVID, that we can’t gather after services for a Kiddush or a lunch; that we were so isolated for so long from our friends. It was not the same without sharing our simcha with others. The Rabbinical Assembly, my professional organization, is now studying the question of how to have a celebration long after the Mitzvah of the celebration is past. Judaism has never had this kind of a problem before. 

When Jews are sick, we visit them in the hospital, not just the Rabbi, but it is a responsibility of the entire community to let them know that they have not been forgotten by their friends. The Talmud teaches that every person who visits the sick takes away 1/60 of their friend’s illness. One Rabbi commented, ‘So let 60 people visit and then they can take him home.” Clearly it does not work that way, but visitors do help us feel better. One of my friends, a hospital chaplain at Slone Kettering, tells the story of entering a hospital room, dark and closed, with a famous scientist dying of cancer. He was alone and bitter. He told the chaplain that there was no need to bother his family, wife, and children, since his situation was hopeless. The chaplain asked him, “when you faced a scientific problem and could not find an answer what would you do?” The scientist replied, “I would post it in a journal, ask my colleagues and research the literature for an answer.” Replied the chaplain, “why not do that now, bring your family here to support you, contact your colleagues to help you find answers, let them bring you papers that might help you solve your problem.  The scientist promised to consider these words. The next week when the chaplain came back, the curtains were open, and the sunshine was streaming in. His wife and children were there to encourage him, a steady stream of colleagues, surprised that a colleague of such caliber was in their midst, was consulting him with their problems even as they worked to answer his questions about his cancer. A few weeks later the scientist went home in remission.

This is the power of community. When we fail each other, our people fall into cults and find strange ways to find connection. It does not have to be this way. We can break the cycle of isolation and loneliness. All we need to do is to notice those who are alone and take some time to be with them, to be interested in them and to show them that we care. We have an interest in making sure that every member of the community is valued for who they are. We have to live our lives with the philosophy that every person matters, every life makes a difference and everyone we meet is an important part of the amazing tapestry of our community. 

When we are alone we are vulnerable to whoever offers us meaning and purpose, no matter if their promise is just a mirage. We have more to offer lonely lives in the mainstream of living. Lonely people have more to offer us in exchange for a few moments of love and appreciation. So take a few moments to care for someone you know who is alone and lonely. That is the responsibility of all of us who are part of this community.  

May God give us the insight and commitment to making sure nobody is left behind in life. May all people find a home in our community and find their rightful place in life, as we say…..
Amen and Shabbat Shalom


Fri, March 24 2023 2 Nisan 5783