The Task of Uni-Tasking: Reclaiming Community in the Face of Loneliness
Rosh Hashanah I 5772 / 29 September 2011
Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg
“I am lonely.” With these three words, Rav Joseph Soloveichik, perhaps the greatest modern Orthodox scholar of the last hundred years, began his seminal essay “The Lonely Man of Faith.” The experience of loneliness is hardly a new phenomenon. The book of Genesis relates what I consider to be the single most salient claim regarding the nature of the human condition. After having declared so much of creation to be “good,” God creates the first human being, and declares: “Lo tov heyot ha’adam levado, it is not good for Man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18). There it is, in Chapter 2, no less – long before Abraham or Moses or any of the Torah’s significant journey narratives. We are, by our very nature, social creatures. “It is not good for man to be alone.” Adam could not endure without companionship, without an ezer k’negdo, a complementary helper, a partner.
If this was true for the first human being, it is all the more so for Jews. And so, I want to make a somewhat audacious claim this Rosh Hashanah: It is impossible be Jewish alone! Now I know some of you might be thinking: “You must be kidding! After all, Judaism is an inheritance. I am Jewish because my parents were Jewish, end of story.” But, that’s exactly my point. We Jews are mishpacha, mishpucha, we’re family. And we are bound together in all the beautiful and complicated ways that families are bound together. Case in point: if someone converts to Judaism, what is his or her Hebrew name? “So-and-so, the son or daughter of Abraham, our father, and Sarah, our mother.” Some of us may be adopted family, but family (mishpacha) nonetheless.
So, how does our practice bear this out – the essential nature of Judaism lived in community? The vast majority of the 613 mitzvot are intended to be fulfilled in collaboration with or in relation to other people: Visiting the sick, redeeming the captive and rejoicing with bride and groom each require community. And many of our essential religious traditions and ceremonies are dependent on community. We need a minyan, ten Jews, to say Kaddish and to read from the Torah. A wedding is to be done in the presence of a minyan. A bris may be done without one, but the strong preference is to have one. Even in cases where there is no specific minimum number of Jews required, Judaism is best done in community. Can you imagine a Pesach seder, a Yom Kippur break-the-fast or a bat mitzvah celebration without family or guests? And for anyone who has ever spent Shabbat dinner – made Kiddush and recited Birkat Hamazon alone, it is more than apparent that these rituals seem almost pointless without someone to share them, without community. And yet that very prospect, of spending Shabbat or other significant Jewish moments alone, is something that many of us have confronted in our lives.
Not all of us, but more and more of us are lonely each year. And not just Jews, we Americans are lonely and we’re getting lonelier. A few years ago, the American Sociological Review released a study (June 2006, McPherson et al) which stated that the number of people saying there is no one with whom they discuss important matters nearly tripled in the past 20 years. Nearly one in four Americans reported that they did not have one person in whom they could confide, not family members, not friends. A professor from the University of Chicago (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2009) says loneliness is not, as we used to think, like depression, introversion, shyness or poor social skills. Rather, John Cacioppo writes, it is a “fundamental human motivational state very much like hunger, thirst or pain.” It is not good for man to be hungry or in pain or alone.
This morning, I want to talk about why we are so lonely. But before I do, I want to suggest that one solution, one antidote to pervasive loneliness in our society, is well within our grasp. Lo bashamayim hi, it is our very tradition, our Jewish heritage and especially our Jewish community to which we can turn.
One of my favorite stories is told about a man named Azyk, the son of Reb Yekl of Krakow. Azyk dreamt one night that there was a great treasure hidden under the Warsaw Bridge. Figuring he had nothing to lose, Azyk woke up early the next morning and began the week long journey to Warsaw. He finally arrived at the bridge only to find that there was a watchman standing guard there. Azyk waited all day, pacing back and forth, waiting for the guard to leave, but the watchman never budged. Finally, the guard became aware of Azyk and his pacing, so he approached him and asked him what he was doing there. Azyk told him the truth: He had come to the Warsaw Bridge because he had dreamed the night before that a treasure was hidden there. “You fool of a Jew!” the watchman said. “You came all the way to Warsaw just because of a silly dream? Why just last night, I dreamt about a great treasure hidden under the stove of a man named Azyk in Krakow. You think I am going to travel all the way there on some fool’s errand!?” Astonished, Azyk thanked the man for setting him straight, turned right around and went home, and sure enough, when he looked under his stove, he found a great treasure there.
Often the treasure we seek is under our very noses. So if community is the antidote to loneliness, why is it so hard to find? Why are so many of us still so lonely? One answer is that Jewish communities are not what they once were. Long gone are the days when families lived and died in the towns of their birth, when Shabbat afternoons meant walking down Brooks Lane to Bubbie’s house or hanging out with friends on the porch at Park Circle. And Baltimore has it better than most places where American communities are in steep decline. And this has led Americans to unprecedented levels of dissatisfaction and loneliness.
There are a number of factors which contribute to this phenomenon, things that make us feel alienated from the society in which we live. See if you identify with any of them. Here are just a few: reality television – not just the feel-good kind but the voyeuristic and mean kind; drivers use cell phones instead of turn signals; we check our Blackberries in the middle of conversations; CEOs of major corporations who are given excessive raises while gas prices skyrocket; banks crumble; and politicians do more posturing than problem-solving. “Truthiness,” the term first coined by Stephen Colbert has become a staple of American politics and pundits. There is increasing disregard for others and disrespect of the elderly. We watch CNN and then wonder what happened to real and constructive debate. We “google” people to determine whether they are worth knowing or dating or both. Little is left to the imagination. “Sexting” is now part of the vernacular. We know graphic details about sexual exploits of presidents and governors, senators and congressman. We have “playdates” and “lifestyles,” which are not quite the same as “play” and “lives.” We use expressions like “touch base” or “stay in touch” which involve no physical contact whatsoever. Even our communal gathering places rarely boast real communities. Take coffee-shop culture. Sure, you can go to a Starbucks and see people talking, but you’re just as likely to enter a cafe these days and find every single person in the room on his or her own individual laptop. I wrote some of this sermon on my own laptop … while sitting in a cafe. We are all at least somewhat complicit.
Perhaps the most acute challenge to living in real community is the ubiquitous “screen.” A Kaiser Foundation study last year found that 8-18 year-olds devote an average of 7 hours and 38 minutes per day to electronic media. And because they spend so much of that time ‘media multi-tasking’ (ie, texting while watching TV and playing Angry Birds), they actually manage to pack a total of 10 hours and 45 minutes worth of media content into those 7 1/2 hours. The grown-ups aren’t much better. After a while, we become numb to it all, don’t we?
I personally learned this lesson when I was a teenager growing up in the Chicago suburbs. I remember the last day of August, 1993. I was pulling up to our townhome in Niles, when my sister and I heard an explosion. We went to investigate and found our neighbor sitting in the doorway, seriously injured and wailing that she had killed her husband. Turns out that an angry ex-boyfriend of a next-door neighbor had left a homemade pipe bomb hidden inside a toolbox. My neighbor handed the box to her husband who opened it. The bomb went off killing him instantly. What I most remember from that day was not the explosion, the broken glass and smoke or even the blood. What I remember most were the cameras. For one day, our sleepy suburban street was thrust into the spotlight as news vans positioned themselves to broadcast the sordid details. What sticks with me was seeing that same image on the evening news, my neighbor sitting in her doorway, clutching her injured leg and crying about her dead husband. How many times have we seen an image like this on the news? How often do we think about just how the image got there – that some cameraman, instead of offering a hand or a word of comfort was simply content to get the best shot! That private moment of grief became a public spectacle, my neighbor just another casualty of our ubiquitous media culture.
Contrast this story with one I remember from ten years ago, the first Shabbat after 9.11. Miriam and I were living in LA at the time. Feeling alone and scared, we decided to go hear Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple, hoping to find some comfort in his words. On our way there, the sun was just going down and we noticed people beginning to congregate on street corners. In a town where most people don’t know their next door neighbor and rarely leave their cars long enough to set foot on their sidewalks, strangers were coming together to light candles, sing songs and support one another at a time of communal need. The evening had been organized over the internet. The same electronic media that broadcast my neighbor’s tragedy on the evening news had now been used to plan a nationwide candlelight vigil for the victims of 9.11. In a moment of profound national loneliness, people came together. Technology, if used right, can be a wonderful tool for building meaningful community.
But, unfortunately, electronic media can just as easily become an unhealthy escape, a virtual universe far from what most of us would consider authentic or true. Remember the nine-year-old girl who supposedly sang at the Beijing Olympics but was found to be lip-syncing? It seems that the real singer wasn’t quite cute enough. There were chuckles, but no widespread outrage. The problem is that we are so used to fakery that it no longer fazes us. From James Frey who fabricated his life to Steven Glass who fabricated the news. From Barry Bonds to Bernie Madoff to Photoshop: virtual reality is no longer a fad, it is simply a part of life. Catcher in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield might say there’s an over-abundance of “phoniness” in our society. Facebook is a great example. I first signed onto Facebook so that I could promote shul events. As a social networking tool, it’s a wonderful resource and it’s even helped me reconnect with some old friends and long-lost relatives. But not long ago I received a “friend-request” from a stranger. When I asked her if perhaps I had forgotten our connection, she replied “no, we don’t know each other, but it’s nice to meet you.” I remember thinking to myself, “but we haven’t met!” Entire on-line communities exist, people with shared interests or disinterests. But you can’t hug someone on-line. You can’t laugh or cry together. Unlike Adam, we feel lonely even as we interact with other people every day. In other words, the loneliness we feel is in some ways exacerbated by the “phony” communities we have constructed. We type away on laptops in cafes but rarely take the time to talk to the person sitting next to us. As one author points out, (Dick Meyer, Why We Hate Us, p. 26) we’ve moved beyond R. D. Putnam. “It’s not just bowling alone, it’s living alone”
So where does this leave us? How do we cut through the noise to discover once again the real and the authentic? The internet seems good because it brings people together and makes life more livable. I can read the Israeli newspaper, check my stock portfolio and play a game of Scrabble with a friend in Singapore, all at the same time. Life in the twenty-first century is about multi-tasking, mastering the art of doing many things at once. Judaism, by contrast, is rarely about multi-tasking. In fact, I would describe our tradition as one that emphasizes “uni-tasking,” being deliberate and present in each aspect of life. That’s why we say berachot; ideally, as our Sages teach us, one hundred times a day: Because for Jews, each moment, each action can be sacred.In fact our tradition teaches that we have no right to enjoy the material world until we have said a blessing. We say Hamotzi and then we may eat the challah. We say the beracha and then we shake the lulav or read from the Torah or even enjoy a sunset. Each beracha is case specific, forcing us to really focus on one particular thing at one particular moment.
Consider this: If there were blessings for computers, would we approach them differently? How’s that? A beracha for Twitter! We know how to screen our calls, perhaps we need to “screen” our screens! In an electronic world, we must find a way to be present once again, to take the time to give more things and especially more people our undivided attention. That is, I believe, what God wants of us. It’s as if the Kadosh Baruch Hu has been sending us messages and we just scroll past them like so much spam on our iPhones. Uni-tasking is our tool, our treasure map, and meaningful community is the treasure we’ve been seeking. We’ve just been looking in the wrong places. It’s not under a bridge in Warsaw, it’s not really on Facebook and it’s most definitely not to be found on CNN or reality TV. It is right here: in our schools, in our synagogue, in our very homes.
So, I’d like to offer us a challenge during these Ten Days of Repentance: Let’s spend less time multi-tasking and more time uni-tasking. And in order to assist with this exercise, I ask you to really consider the question of berachot: What if each person, each task in our lives was truly marked with a beracha? Baruch Ata: we acknowledge your blessings, God, when we sit down for dinner and turn off our cell phones. Baruch Ata: we acknowledge your blessing, God when we do have a phone conversation but do so with the TV off and not in front of the computer. What if we said, “Baruch Ata: In the coming days, we will give our singular attention to reading a book, sitting with a patient, writing a brief or shopping for groceries. We will say “hi” to a stranger at a crosswalk or in a cafe or take a chance on meeting someone new at work. But, whatever we do, Baruch Ata: we will try to be truly present.”
And while each of us is working on this at work and with our own families we will also be doing so with our Beth Am family. To this end, I am thrilled to announce our first ever “Year of 613+ Shabbat Dinners.” The goal of the initiative is twofold: First, we want to make sure that every Beth Am member gets at least one invitation to a Shabbat meal at another member’s home in the coming year. And second, we want to celebrate the many Shabbat meals that already happen informally - and inspire more of you to make Shabbat dinner part of your lives. There are more details in the HHD program. Talk to David Lunken if you wish to be a “neighborhood captain,” and my deepest thanks to David, Ellen Spokes and Miriam Burg for your vision and dedication.
Hevre, it is not good for man (or woman) to be alone. We need one another. We know this intuitively. What we do not always recognize is which aspects of our lives are bringing us closer together and which ones are doing more to push us apart. Any relationship, whether with our spouse or our dry cleaner is best done in person, when we can utilize all five of our senses. But when we can’t, for that is the nature of the world in which we live, let’s try to be more present, let’s remember that each moment, each person is truly a blessing. It may not bring an end to loneliness in America, but I humbly suggest that it may just be the best prescription for a sweet New Year.