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Erev Rosh Hashanah 2020/5781

09/18/2020 04:27:43 PM


Rabbi Rachel M. Maimin

"Loneliness to Hope"

“In the soft light of morning,

a couple of hours before a day game,

an empty ballpark is a beautiful,

holy secret you have been let in on,

the near silence a tease,

hinting at what came before

and what will soon come again.

The gentle scratch of a rake across the infield dirt.

The vapor hiss of a water hose.

A lone, between-starts pitcher running up and down the steps.

The low hum of the invisible machinery

that will power this entire, glorious enterprise.


It is the sound of anticipation.”


National Baseball writer Dave Sheinin continues,

in a beautiful column in the Washington Post:


“But in the blazing sunlight of afternoon,

right at first pitch,

the same near silence is now a grotesquerie.

“Play ball!” the umpire yells as if he’s right in your ear.

The announcer introduces the visitors’ leadoff hitter

to an official crowd of zero…

Then you notice the soft buzz of a fake crowd

piped in over the loudspeakers.


It is the sound of loneliness.”[i]


The sound of loneliness

seems to rear its head constantly these days.

On television,

we hear it in ballparks –

as someone on an iPad manipulates 72 different sounds

to create fake crowd noise

(sounds literally taken from a video game) –

we heard it at the US Open

as confetti was dropped on 10 individuals

at the trophy ceremony –

confetti, but no crowd.

And we hear it daily,

resonating so very loudly in our own homes,

whether we live by ourselves

or surrounded by others.

The sound of loneliness seems to be omnipresent.


Now loneliness is NOT the same as being alone.

It’s not merely a physical state.

There are times when all of us ask for a little alone time –

to read a book, meditate, go for a walk,

catch up on our favorite show.

This we might call solitude –

being alone by choice.

Loneliness is the “subjective feeling of isolation”[ii]

and not by choice.

Loneliness can make us not only miserable;

loneliness can actually make us feel sick.[iii]

And this feeling of loneliness

has skyrocketed during these last six months.


Many of us know this loneliness.

Those of us living by ourselves,

AND those of us living with others.

Many of us know the feelings that accompany loneliness,

the ups and downs of these last 6 months.

We know the days when we wake up and feel ok,

and we also know the days

when all we want to do is curl up on the couch and cry,

or scream, or be held.


Our Torah reminds us

that loneliness is perhaps the oldest feeling in the world.

God creates the world, day by day,

and throughout this process of creation,

vayar Elohim ki tov[iv] – God saw that this was good.

But then God looks at Adam,

and the very first thing that God says to Adam is:

lo tov heyot ha’adam l’vado[v]

It is not good for you, human, to be alone.

E’eseh lo ever k’negdo –

I will make you a partner.


And this is not the only moment of loneliness in our Bible.

Perhaps no book explores the feeling of being alone, unheard, and unseen more profoundly than Psalms.

“Time and again we hear King David’s despair:


I am worn out from my groaning.

All night long I flood my bed with weeping

and drench my couch with tears.[vi]


How long, God? Will You forget me forever?
How long will You hide Your face from me?[vii] 


My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?
Why are You so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish?[viii] 


Out of the depths I cry to You, God…[ix]


I find it so comforting to know

that the greatest leaders of our sacred stories –

King David, or our Prophets, or even God –

know intimately what loneliness is,

how it feels to drench a couch with tears.

It reminds me that “I am not alone in feeling [lonely].

Other people [have] been there before me –

and came through their despair.”[x]

And this,

I believe,

is the first response to loneliness –

an incredibly important reminder that,

as early twentieth century novelist Thomas Wolfe wrote,

“…loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon,

is the central and inevitable fact of human existence.”[xi] 


The second response to loneliness:

reaching out and showing up.

Reflecting on God’s acknowledgement

that it is not good for Adam to be alone,

Rabbi Sharon Brous teaches:

“God’s response to loneliness…is partnership.

But here let’s not be so narrow minded as to believe

that partnership must be marriageable or even romantic.

What is an ezer k’negdo?

Someone who helps him (an ezer)

by standing opposite him (k’neged lo) –

facing him when no one else will look his way.

It’s someone who steps into the darkest moments,

often without saying even a word,

just offering presence.

It’s a friend, a sister, a partner, a rabbi –

someone who can remind you

that even though she can’t fully understand,

you are not alone because she is there.”[xii]


As a close friend reminded me recently,

as I was trying to decide how many nights of shiva to attend

for another friend whose father had died:

You will never regret going to shiva.

You will never regret showing up for the funeral –

even if it’s on Zoom, or livestream,

even if it feels awkward.


And it turns out, in fact,

that the feeling of loneliness is actually a signal to us

that we are in real need of social interaction.

“The purpose of loneliness is like the purpose of hunger.

Hunger takes care of your physical body.

Loneliness takes care of your social body,

which you also need to survive and prosper.”


And yes,

I know,

I feel it too –

it is so much harder to figure out how to do this these days.

I think we might start

by changing some of the language we use –

we don’t need to socially distance,

we need to physically distance.

We need social CLOSENESS more than ever right now.

We need to pay attention to our own pangs of loneliness,

and reach out –

and we need to listen for the pangs of loneliness in others,

and show up for them.


And the third antidote to loneliness?

I believe that third antidote is hope.

And by hope,

I don’t mean

that things will just magically get better on their own.

That’s optimism.

We are in the midst of times

that are so far outside the bound of normal,

and we are living in an uncertainty

over which we have very little control.

BUT – despite all that –

we can still hope.

Hope is an active word – it requires something of us.

And the Jewish people has always been a people of hope.


The prophet Zechariah so believed this

that he called the Jewish people asirei hatikvah,

captives of hope.


Zechariah asserted that,

even in the most difficult of times,

we are a people who are required to hope.[xiii]

Reflecting on these words,

Rabbi Reuven Hammer teaches

that “hope may indeed be the key to Jewish survival […]

It must have taken a great deal of strength

to keep alive the hope of survival and redemption

during the many times of darkness in Jewish history,

ancient and modern.”[xiv]


So what does it mean for us to be asirei hatikvah,

captives of hope?


Perhaps the great American essayist, intellectual, and poet Adrienne Rich captures it best:


What would it mean to live

in a city whose people were changing

each other’s despair into hope? —

You yourself must change it. —

what would it feel like to know

your country was changing? —

You yourself must change it. —

Though your life felt arduous

new and unmapped and strange

what would it mean to stand on the first

page of the end of despair?[xv]


I know – we are not on that new first page yet.

We are still somewhere in the middle of this story –

this story that is filled with loss, uncertainty, loneliness.

And I know,

we cannot simply end this story and move on with our lives –

would that we could.

But we do not have to remain prisoners of our loneliness.

We can name it,

acknowledge its presence,

knowing that it is truly an essential part

of the human condition.

We can reach out to others –

both when their pangs of loneliness cry out to us

and when ours cry out to them.

And we can choose to be captives of hope,

to work toward a sweeter, and brighter,

and more whole future –

we can, together,

stand in the arduous and new and unmapped and strange,

and together,

work to change our loneliness and despair into hope.

May we have the strength to do so.


[i] Dave Sheinin, “What does baseball sound like during a pandemic? Loneliness – and hope.” The Washington Post. August 28, 2020.

[ii] Jamie Ducharme, “COVID-19 is Making America’s Loneliness Epidemic Even Worse.” Time. May 8, 2020.

[iii] Dr. John Cacioppo, various research studies (

[iv] Genesis 1:10, and others

[v] Genesis 2:18

[vi] Ps. 6:6

[vii] Ps. 13:1-2

[viii] Ps. 22:2

[ix] Ps. 130:1

[x] Psalms and this quote from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Loneliness and Faith (Beha’alotecha 5780). June 4, 2020.

[xi] Wolfe, Thomas. “God’s Lonely Man,” The Thomas Wolfe Reader, ed. Holman. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1962. p. 676. Essay originally appears in Wolfe, Thomas. The Hills Beyond. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1941.

[xii] Rabbi Sharon Brous, The Amen Effect (Kol Nidre).

[xiii] Zechariah 9:12

[xv] From “Dream Before Waking” by Adrienne Rich; Also, Zechariah, Hammer, and Rich ideas shared by Rabbi Meredith Kahan

Tue, June 6 2023 17 Sivan 5783