Last Tuesday, on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, we read from the very beginning of the Torah, about the seven days in which, the Torah tells us, God created the world. On each day, God pronounces what God has created to be good. On the sixth day, when the work is complete, God says that it is “very good.” And God rests on the seventh day. The first of the two creation stories is complete.
Rabbi Shoshana Boyd Gelfand, in Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman’s book We have Sinned: Sin and Confession in Judaism, discusses the power of words. After all, the Torah tells us that God brought the world into being with words. “Let there be light,” says God, and then there is light. After the destruction of the Temple, our rabbis made a transition from performing animal sacrifice to prayer instead—they explicitly replaced the act of sacrifice with words. Rabbi Gelfand writes, “Surely, if words can create the world, then they can also re-create and even repair the world” (p. 165). When we confess our sins on Yom Kippur, we are using our words to acknowledge and atone, to repair ourselves and our community. It is something we must do together.
After the first creation story in the Torah, second creation story is told. In the first chapter of Genesis, God creates humans on the sixth day, and it says, “male and female God created them.” In the second chapter on Genesis, the story seems to begin with the creation of the person, and it is a single person. The person is placed in the Garden of Eden. It is then that we have the first instance in the Torah of “lo tov.” Not good. God observes that it is not good for a person to be alone. God creates all kinds of animals to keep the person company, but apparently none of them are a good match. So God creates a second person, and then there is a man and a woman.
We have known since the beginning of time that it is not good for a person to be chronically alone. Today, science bears that out. There are multiple studies that show that social isolation has serious consequences. People who do not feel connected to others are more likely to have chronic diseases like cancer, heart disease, and diabetes; they more frequently get colds or flu, and take longer to recover; they feel lonely and often depressed; and they don’t live as long as people who do feel connected to others. (Source: https://socialwellness.wordpress.com/the-causes-and-impact-of-social-isolation/)
There is a difference between choosing to be alone, and being socially isolated. People who are introverts need alone time—lots of it, sometimes—because that is how they recharge their energy. Someone who is socially isolated may or may not be an introvert, but they are not feeling that they have access to others when they need companionship or social interaction.
Various factors can contribute to social isolation. In our society, where extended families often live far from one another, we often don’t have the support of relatives who live nearby. New mothers can find themselves feeling socially isolated and lonely when they’re home with a newborn, trying to learn to parent. Elderly, homebound people easily become socially isolated when they can’t get to places where there are people to connect with. Those with serious illnesses, regardless of age, often find themselves alone, as friends don’t know how to interact with them and so, too often, just don’t. Those who are grieving a loss may also find themselves feeling doubly alone—without the person who has died, and without people to share their loss and pain with. And many people, including me, have trouble reaching out and asking others for help.
In high school, though I had friends and family and wasn’t socially isolated, I still sometimes felt lonely. I remember friends would always say, “I’m here whenever you need me.” They meant well, but I remember thinking, “What about when I’m not having a crisis so that I need you? What about just the rest of the time? Why are you only there when I have a specific need?” The message was that they were available when something was wrong, not just for regular, daily friendship.
Rabbi Gelfand calls isolation the Jewish “original sin.” As the first thing in the Torah that is declared “not good,” she says, “God (and the Torah) become obsessed with relationship. The relationship between human beings and God and the relationship between human beings and each other are the focus of the rest of the Torah” (p. 166).
On Erev Rosh Hashanah, I spoke about unconditional love from God. Jews don’t talk about God that much; maybe because we focus more on behavior than belief most of the time, or maybe because Judaism doesn’t dictate what our relationship with God needs to be—it’s up to each of us to develop our own relationship with God, in whatever way we understand that word “God.” In our evening services, though, when we read or sing Ahavat Olam, what we are saying is that we are loved by an unending love. Maybe you feel loved unconditionally by God, maybe you don’t. I can’t access belief in that love all the time. And actually, I don’t think God loving us and being with us is enough to prevent us from feeling socially isolated. What we really need is the second kind of relationship the Torah focuses on: the relationship human beings have with each other.
Americans are not joining organizations the way that they used to. Families and friends spend less time together. Synagogues, churches, and other organizations are struggling. And social isolation is increasing. According to Robert Putnam and the Saguaro Seminar for Civic Engagement at Harvard’s Kennedy School, the number of socially isolated Americans more than doubled over the 2 decades from 1984-2004, from 10% to a quarter of all Americans. This is not because of the internet, says Putnam, it was already happening before Facebook, before email.
The reasons for Americans’ civic disengagement are complicated. The Saguaro Seminar website gives this short and necessarily incomplete answer to the question of what the cause is: “After considering a whole host of reasons, it is most likely that the cause is probably: 10% sprawl and the increased geographic complexity of our lives; 10% two-career families and the fact that men haven’t picked up the civic slack created when more women entered the paid work force; some 30% television (which seems to cause viewers to increasingly be less civic and which has absorbed more than 100% of the increase in leisure time from the 1960s); and roughly 30% generational trends (as those born after 1930 have increasingly been far less civic than those born before 1930). The final roughly 20% is probably a combination of many other factors.” (https://www.hks.harvard.edu/saguaro/faqs.htm)
So we Jews, and others who look to our Bible as sacred text, have known forever that social isolation is not good. More recently, science backs this idea up.
I think you know what I am going to propose as a remedy. If it weren’t Yom Kippur, you could get good and tipsy if you played a drinking game where you had to drink every time I say the word “community.” But that really is what it’s about. Those of you who are here on a regular basis, either for services or for other activities, already know what our synagogue community has to offer. It’s a chance to meet people with all different kinds of jobs and family situations. It’s a chance to spend time with people in different kinds of life situations. If you’re a grandparent with grandkids far away, there are babies and little kids here for you to kvell over. If you’re a parent of young kids with your parents far away, there are folks here who have been through it and can tell you it’s going to be okay. There is the opportunity here to socialize and become friends both with people who are in a similar life situation, and people of different generations and life experiences. We help and support each other.
One parent told me that one Saturday morning, she got a call from her alarm company that the alarm in her home was going off. She had not driven to the synagogue, so she was getting ready to walk home and check it out when another parent, who she didn’t really know, offered to drive her to her house with her and see what was going on. She gratefully accepted the offer, glad to have the ride and to not be alone if there were an intruder in her home. There was not, fortunately. But this is who we are. People who, when we notice that something is happening in someone’s life, offer help. This is not the only story that I’ve heard like this.
I think all of you know by now that we’ve been facing significant challenges with our building. We have not been able to use our function room downstairs for just about a month. This crisis has mobilized our members. A team of members who have knowledge or influence have joined our temple leadership to address this issue. If you have not volunteered or been contacted, and if you feel you have something to add to help address this crisis, please contact the office or our congregational president, Jeff Levinson.
Our congregation has been here for over 100 years, representing Reform Judaism in Flatbush, Brooklyn. I believe to the core of my being that Jewish community is worthwhile, and in particular, I love this community like I’ve never loved any other Jewish community I’ve participated in. Unfortunately, as you’ve already heard tonight, our community is in financial danger. It’s not because we don’t have devoted members, and it’s not because people who come here don’t value the community. It’s because when you’re over 100 years old, and your building is over 100 years old, and you’ve struggled through many years of financial hardship, the building needs a lot of work. And this isn’t the kind of work that philanthropists find interesting. So, financially, we’re very challenged. And if you value this community, and if you have access to significant resources, please, if you can, leverage them to help your community of Temple Beth Emeth v’Ohr Progressive Shaari Zedek.
Meanwhile, as a team ably led by treasurer Evelyn Shunaman and president Jeff Levinson work to balance our budget and find sources of funds to do what we need to do for the building, I continue to work with our congregants to enhance and enrich the spiritual life of our synagogue family.
I hope that among those of you who are here, and those watching our streaming video, there is no one who feels socially isolated and neglected. If you do, please, please reach out to me so that I can help and let others in our community know so that they can help.
It is our task to carry out ahavat olam, the everlasting, unending love that our tradition promises. Our texts say that that love is God’s love. As humans created in God’s image, our role is to manifest God’s love to other humans. So starting within our own synagogue community, let us support one another, even if we don’t agree politically or find ourselves in a similar life situation. Let us talk and listen to one another. Let us do everything possible to support our synagogue community—financially, politically, spiritually, and communally—so that it is here for us when we need it, and also when we don’t need it, but want to meet friends or just know that the community exists for the day when we will need it.May we understand that our congregation is a congregation ready to offer us unending and unconditional love, and may we offer that kind of love to all of those we encounter in our community. This is a special and amazing community. Let’s all of us make sure that continues by welcoming and being ready to love everyone who comes through our doors. No one here is alone. Amen and g’mar chatimah tovah—may you be sealed for a good year to come.