The Loneliest Number

Parshat Ki Tissa
March 3, 2018 / 16 Adar 5778

Last week, a parent called me to talk about our upcoming TEen trip to Israel. To prepare for the call, I got all my information—the itinerary and registration paperwork, the bio for our fabulous tour guide, the travel dates, and pictures and stories from our amazing trip in 2016. But as soon as the conversation began, I realized that all the information I prepared was useless. The parent wasn’t concerned about the details of the trip. What they really wanted to know was if this trip would help their child to feel less alone.

Loneliness is epidemic, especially amongst young people. According to a study published by the Mental Health Foundation, young adults are significantly more likely to experience loneliness, and corresponding anxiety and depression about their loneliness, than adults over the age of 55. Nearly one in three 16-24 year olds report feeling lonely most or all of the time. And today, teenagers and young adults are three times more likely than people of retirement age to spend most of their time alone.

It’s not just young people who suffer from endemic loneliness. According to a study published in the New York Times, since the 1980s, the percentage of lonely American adults has doubled. British surveys report that one in eight adults say they have no close friends. One in five adults report feeling lonely most or all of the time. One in 20 say they never feel loved. One in eight say that feeling loved is a rare experience.

It turns out that our health is dependent on how connected we feel to the people around us. Individuals who are lonely have disrupted sleep patterns, altered immune systems, increased inflammation, and higher levels of stress hormones which can increase the risk of heart disease, arthritis, Type 2 diabetes, and dementia. Loneliness is not only a threat to a thriving social life, or to the fabric of a community, it is also a very real health risk.

In some ways, talking about loneliness here at Temple Emanuel feels silly.  After all, we are the embodiment of a warm and welcoming community. I love to brag that you can’t sneak in here–you can’t walk in our doors without someone saying hello, bringing you in, giving you an honor. We’re such a warm and welcoming community that we couldn’t even stop shaking hands during flu season because that ran against our core inclination to connect and regard one another when we are in the same space.

But underneath all that warm, welcoming energy; we are not immune from the undercurrent of loneliness which plagues our world. We have members who come here to mourn the loss of a loved one, a spouse, a sibling, or a parent. We have members who are searching for their beloved for the first time, who are married but lonely in their marriage, who remember what love once felt like and hope to find it again. We have young people who are desperate for connections, hungry for community. We have elders who move here for children and grandchildren and yearn to build up their social networks anew. We have members who are home-bound because of illness or new babies, who feel disconnected because their lives are unfolding in a separate space. Loneliness, even in the context of a warm and welcoming community, is a very real thing.

What do we do in the face of loneliness?

In certain ways, this question lies at the heart of our Torah reading. When our ancestors left Egypt, they left as a group. All the fathers and mothers and sisters and brothers walked out through parted waters together. On the surface, they form a strong and cohesive community. But under the surface, loneliness threatens. Moshe understands this. He creates rituals for the people to bring them together: he connects them with God, he connects them with each other. When he is there, life is good. But this week, Moshe leaves the people to go up on Mount Sinai. And without him, things begin to break down.

The text specifies that when the people see that Moshe is taking a long time to come down, that is when trouble breaks loose. You can almost see the people standing there at the base of the mountain, looking for Moshe, feeling their loneliness. It’s the isolation, the severed social fabric which inspires their action. All they want is something to make them feel connected. They need something to hold onto. And so, the people pour all their energy into building a golden calf and worshipping it in the desert.

We do this too. We all have golden calf moments. Moments in which we feel lonely and isolated and go out searching for quick fixes that will make us feel more connected. We go to the bar, we drink, we use mind-altering substances. We drown our worries in sugary sweets and late-night Netflix binges. We pick up casual romantic partners, spend our time posting on Facebook rather than engaging friends in real life. We pour our energy into our work, leaving us with little energy to devote to the relationships which could nourish our hearts. We become focused on money instead of meaning; intimacy instead of intimate communication. And the more we focus our energy on building these golden calves, the less time and energy we have to devote to relationships and activities which can add depth and meaning to our lives.

But there is another answer. When Moshe comes back down the mountain, he has a series of instructions for the people. First off, when you feel the inclination to pour your energy into a golden calf, don’t. Instead, gather together and celebrate the moments when you overcame adversity. Gather for Pesach and Shabbos and Sukkot. The antidote to loneliness, Moshe teaches, is to reach out to others and spend quality time together.

Which brings me back to our teen Israel trip. We recently hosted a gathering for the now-10th graders who travelled with us to Israel last year. As part of our reunion, we asked the teens to reflect on their favorite memories from the trip. I was surprised to hear which memories continue to inspire our teens—they weren’t the memories I expected.

One teen remembered with enthusiasm our first night in Israel. We had been travelling for what seemed like forever—our flight was delayed and then we had to struggle through traffic to make it to the hotel in time for Shabbos. We were exhausted. And we walked into this big dining hall where a family was already gathered at a table singing in Hebrew. The teens walked in, looking around uncomfortably, not sure of where to go or who to sit with. I started to wonder what the trip would look like—how could we help the teens to feel at home in the Holy Land? And then the grandpa from one of the tables got up and started inviting the teens in Hebrew to join his family for Kiddush. Even though they didn’t share a language, he managed to bring those teens in and soon they were all sitting together singing and laughing.

That one moment, where the grandpa invited our teens to join his family for Kiddush, shifted the whole energy of the evening. When the teens look back on it now, that was a moment when they first felt connected to Israel, to Israelis, and to Jewish tradition. And that memory of connection continues to inspire them to get involved here at Temple Emanuel.

Loneliness is epidemic.  What will we do?  Will we choose to pour our energy into building golden calves, perpetuating this isolation?  Or, will we look around and see who is lonely in our midst seeking connection? Will we invite them to join us for Passover, for Shabbos, for a walk, for a call? Will we be the change that leads to a more connected, more joyful future?