We all lived through the mageifah of Covid. Before this pandemic, many of us thought that epidemics were a thing of the past. Ancient civilizations had epidemics. We have vaccines, cures, good hygiene, etc. Yet, for several years, we were all isolated. We experienced being quarantined and other losses of social and religious interaction. Some say that Covid is over. Some say that it will never really be gone. But in many ways, our lives have gone on. However, according to many health care professionals, there is a new but related epidemic of loneliness. A recent (July 16, 2023) full page article in the “Sunday Opinion” section of The New York Times was entitled “If Loneliness is an Epidemic, How Do We Treat It?”
Some of the frightening statistics are that “more than one-fifth of Americans over 18 say that they often are or always feel lonely or socially isolated.” The Surgeon General of the United States, Dr. Vivek Murthy, asserted in April that “Addressing the crisis of loneliness is one of our generation’s greatest challenges.” Although the field of neuroscience has made many advances in treating previously incurable conditions, they have not yet found a “magic pill” or formula for this malady. The hormone pregnenolone seems to have alleviated some of the symptoms, but is far from a cure. Dr. Daniel Russel, already in the 1970s, developed the “U.C.L.A Loneliness Scale,” a 20-item questionnaire that is still used in many research studies to measure loneliness. I am not a health care professional, but loneliness does not seem to be one of those conditions that can easily be quantified or even identified. One writer, Fay Bound Alberti, has even written an entire book called “A Biography of Loneliness,” but loneliness continues to exist and often fester.
Now that we are in the midst of Elul, it is an appropriate time to note that in the secular world, “the holidays” are known to be prone to bouts of loneliness, even to the point of mental illness and r”l suicide. Since we are not immune to societal malaises, this is a good moment to explore the Torah’s attitude toward this danger to body and soul.
Chazal (Bava Basra 16a) relate that the man who was the ultimate representative and paradigm of human suffering, Iyov, lost almost everything that a person can lose in this world. Yet, he was spared his best three friends. The Gemara (Taanis 23a) declares that without friends such as Iyov, a person is considered to be dead. Rav Eizik Sher, the rosh yeshiva of Slabodka, explains that the reason Iyov lost everything except his friends was that the Soton was given permission to test Iyov with all the deprivations in the world but not to kill him. It is clear, therefore, that oy chavrusa oy misusa – one who is without the camaraderie of loyal friends may as well be dead.
Let us explore a bit of the Torah’s stress on the importance of having good friends. The Mishnah (this week’s Perek Avos, 1:6) stresses that “one must acquire a friend.” The Me’iri comments that “even the smartest person requires someone else who can advise him objectively as to what he needs to know and do.” He also references the words of the sages that without this, one is as if he is dead, using the metaphor that it is like having a left hand but no right. Rav Elimelech of Lizhensk (Tzetel Koton 13) goes even further, recommending that “one should even relate to his good friend all the bad thoughts that have entered his mind, not avoiding this process even though it may be humiliating. In this way, by bringing these thoughts from the potential into reality, he will break the power of the evil inclination.”
The Shelah Hakadosh (Yoma) writes that the difference between having a good or a bad friend is symbolized by the fact the word chover uses the same letters as the word cherev (sword), since a good friend saves us from danger, whereas a bad one can mortally wound us. He concludes that we must use these same letters to choose (bochar) carefully and wisely. At this point, we cannot but note that on social media, one “friends” people who can often bring them down, ruin them and yet leave them more “friendless” than ever before. People can have apparent legions of followers and even “friends,” yet none of them care about each other at all. Our sages stress that friends are only equated with life itself when they “tell it like it is,” as did Iyov’s friends, who eventually led him back to happiness and prosperity.
To return to the loneliness epidemic, Chazal (Sifri, Ki Savo 305) warn that “acquiring a friend comes only with the hardest of work.” No, there is no panacea. The Torah predicted this mageifah, but knew long ago that there is no simple cure. One must seek and even pay for (kenei lecha chover) proper friendship.
The Divrei Chaim of Sanz (Likkutei Emurim, Parshas Emor) warns that the posuk (Devorim 1:23) states that ish echad lashavet – one man for each tribe also means that when someone is alone, he will be hit by a stick (shevet also means a rod), which can be destructive in and of itself. The Ran (Drashos, No. 1) adds that even if a friend is not advising or performing an intervention, just the proximity with a good person will change us by osmosis. My rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner, once commented toward the end of his life that he appreciated just sitting with other Yidden in good fellowship. Although he was in the company overwhelmingly of his own talmidim, he modestly expressed his love for the spiritual connection of the group and an extended tzibbur of Jews.
For us, this means that we should not necessarily look to associate exclusively with people higher and holier than us, although that is desirable when possible. Just seeking out chevrah with whom one can speak of Torah, good middos, share and commiserate is already a positive thing. Of course, this is diametrically the opposite of entering the netherworld of social media, where there is only jealousy, rancor, grudging and rivalry.
Since during Elul we are renewing all of our religious activities, let us remind ourselves of the injunction of the Arizal (Sefer Hakavanos) to begin every morning davening from the Akeidah, with the commitment to love each and every Jew with the same love we reserve for ourselves. Besides being the right thing to do, this does begin to resolve any loneliness that we have, since it connects us to millions of people whom we don’t know but are now our true friends. Rav Avrohom of Slonim added that the Arizal taught that when we truly connect to Klal Yisroel, we each share our best traits, improving each other as we think of them and their own needs and yearnings.
Thus, although we do indeed suffer from the general problems of society, we have solutions the world hasn’t even begun to explore. We can reach across time and space to those far and near, from the past and even the unknown future, and pray for them, as we hope they will do for us. The Maor Vashemesh (Parshas Masei) goes so far as to say that one of the 48 methods of acquiring the Torah (Avos 6:6) is dibbuk chaveirim (having close friends), because as we associate with other good people, we each grow spiritually, constantly improving each other. The Nesivos Shalom of Slonim interpreted the well-known Mishnah (Avos 2:18) not to consider oneself as a rasha in an original way. He says that the words bifnei atzmecha also means that if you are alone, you are sure to fall into sin, but if you make sure to always be in the company of good friends, you will build a bulwark against the forces of evil and destruction.
Of course, we must have empathy for those who are lonely and do what we can for each of them. But let us also remember, especially during Elul, how we, as good Jews, can tackle and overcome loneliness with a proper love and connection to every other Jew in the world. That will also help us, G-d willing, to bring a kesivah vachasimah tova to our entire nation im yirtzeh Hashem.