In our day and age, meaningful interaction has been replaced by sound bites, buzz words and emojis that create pseudo or “virtual” relationships. Here Tovah Leah Nachmani and Rabbi Zvi Hirschfield discuss the Jewish take on meaningful relationships to self, family, community and God.
Tovah Leah: One major challenge to happiness is loneliness. Loneliness was an all too familiar companion in my younger life. Watching others in social settings, it seemed obvious to me that as human beings we are hardwired for connection – to laugh together, to identify, to share, to support and to enjoy our lives with others. And yet, I didn’t naturally intuit how to connect with people who seemed so different from me. While spending time alone, as a creative person, was generally refreshing and restorative for me, at the end of the day, I found myself lonely and yearning for connection. The Torah underscores our existential need for connection when it describes the aloneness of the first human being as “טוב לא ,“not complete.
Zvi: While I totally agree about being “hardwired” to need meaningful relationships, it occurs to me that we are also hardwired for loneliness. The Mishna in Sanhedrin delights in the fact that all human beings are unique individuals designed as such by God. This blessing of uniqueness, which makes each of us a world unto ourselves, also creates a reality where no single person can ever fully understand all our thoughts, feelings or needs. Even when God creates woman to respond to the loneliness of Adam, God creates an ezer kenegdo, a helper opposite him. On the one hand, Adam finds a companion with whom he is blessed to “become one flesh.” On the other hand, she is opposite, not next to him. Both Adam and Chava maintain their uniqueness and individuality, emphasizing that while their lives together will be shared they will also be different from one another. Loneliness is a built-in component of being human.
Tovah Leah: While that is not the most encouraging of conclusions, perhaps the pain of loneliness can actually serve us. Like hunger, loneliness is an urge, calling us to seek out better ways of connecting with others. Rav Kook wrote 100 years ago, “I will not try to distract my heart from the sadness and loneliness that I feel, because I know that loneliness is a revelation of that which I am lacking. Feelings of sadness are like road signs that can help me to know what I need to remedy.” Feeling lonely can be a sign pointing us to invest more intentionally, either in ourselves or in our relationships. There are many ways to do that. The first and most accessible for many people is social media. While social media has many benefits, social media has not solved the problem of loneliness in young adults. The number of young adults who admit to feelings of loneliness has actually doubled with the use of social media, from 20% to 40%, according to a study by the University of Chicago’s Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience.
Zvi: I can see why. Here’s an example: Facebook can make me feel worse about my life, especially when the people posting are showing themselves at their happiest or smiling on vacation – and my family just got over an argument in the kitchen with no vacation in sight.
Tovah Leah: While I also like to share only our best photos, and to see other people’s photos, I can also relate to that element of comparison and envy. Knowing the defects of my own life, I also begin to wonder what their life is like behind the gloss. Commenting on the Mishna’s instruction to “acquire for yourself a friend,” Rambam writes that friendship is not only about sharing enjoyable times together, but also about trust –
bout the ability to reveal my authentic self-successes and failures – with another person without feeling the need to apologize for my flaws, or to showcase only my most shining moments.
Zvi: It takes courage to establish meaningful connections, and not settle for relationships that just skim the surface of who we are. So here’s a question: How many of our Biblical heroes had friends? Who, from among the Israelites, for whom Moshe gave of himself tirelessly and lovingly, was his friend? Only Yitro, the Midianite priest, who came from outside, was able to witness the difficulties Moshe faced and offer empathy, support and wisdom.
Tovah Leah: In his same comment on the Mishna, the Rambam claims that while we all need friends who support us, the highest form of friendship is actually a friend who helps us realize more of our potential and makes us better people. From this perspective, it may turn out that, like Yitro, the people who challenge us the most can also prove to be the kind of friends who most help us to grow. I see this happening within our very own diverse community at Pardes.
Zvi: Sometimes we can address our sense of natural disconnection to people within and even beyond our community by acknowledging an inherent commonality we all share with one another. The Baal HaTanya argued that the deepest form of connection is built on the recognition and experience of the Godliness that exists in all of us. While often challenging to believe, this thought has inspired me to build connections with people who I never would have thought I could relate to in my wildest dreams.
Tovah Leah: Zvi asked me an evocative question: Can God be a friend? In other words, can a relationship with God make us feel less alone? My answer would be definitely yes. My imperfect practice of daily prayer and my attempt to make sincere blessings over food and drink make me feel closer to God, both in yearning for what I lack, and in gratitude for what I have been blessed with. Speaking the words of Hebrew prayer we inherited from our ancestors over the centuries, interspersed with words of Tanakh that span millennia – not to mention learning Torah – gives me a deep sense of belonging and identity, even a sense of intimacy with God.
Zvi: This is definitely the hardest one for me. For example, when I recite the prayer of Ahava Raba, great love, that precedes the recitation of Shema, I ask myself, Does God really love me? Do I love God? I find it easier to look back in my life and see God there, as opposed to sensing God in the present or projecting God into the future. I guess I could say that my relationship with God often leaves me in a very lonely place. My relationship with God is definitely a work in progress.
Tovah Leah: So is mine, don’t get me wrong! Honestly, Zvi, I don’t believe you when you say that your relationship with God leaves you in a lonely place. But maybe that’s because God doesn’t laugh at your jokes…
Continue exploring Shaping Meaningful Relationships in a Lonely World at the Pardes Executive Learning Seminar: June 30–July 4, 2019 & Dec. 29, 2019–Jan. 2, 2020 in Jerusalem. For more information visit: pardes.org.il/executive