AND YA'AKOV WAS ALONE
Rabbi David Walk
The novelist Thomas Wolfe wrote in his essay 'God's Lonely Man': The whole conviction of my life now rests upon the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, peculiar to myself and to a few other solitary men, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence. When we examine the moments, acts, and statements of all kinds of people -- not only the grief and ecstasy of the greatest poets, but also the huge unhappiness of the average soul…we find, I think, that they are all suffering from the same thing. The final cause of their complaint is loneliness. Wolfe's observation, made in the third decade of the twentieth century, has informed a large segment of those thinkers referred to as Existentialists, including Rav Soloveitchik. But this phenomenon is not new. King David begs God, 'Don't desert or abandon me, O God of my salvation. For my father and my mother have abandoned me, but You gather me in (adopt me, Psalm 27:9-10).' And going even farther back in time, Ya'akov finds himself alone in our Torah reading and this leads to one of the most dramatic scenes in our Tanach.
The pertinent verse states: And Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn (Genesis 32:25). On the narrative level there are a large number of explanations about why Ya'akov was left all alone. Probably the most literal account is given by Rabbi Ovadia S'forno that he was left alone because he had made sure to get everyone else across before he crossed the brook himself. However the most famous approach is the Midrashic one given by Rashi. He had returned to the previous encampment to retrieve small jars which had been left behind. But I'm not so interested in those details, because I believe that the major issue isn't Ya'akov's physical aloneness, but his spiritual or existential aloneness.
Rav Dov Lior, the community rabbi of Kiryat Arba and Chevron, explained that all confrontations between Jew and Gentile throughout history have both a physical and spiritual nature. We are always alone in our spiritual conflicts. On the rare occasions when we have allies, they are only concerned with the physical aspects of the conflict. Ya'akov is having this spiritual clash and crisis before the next day's physical encounter with Esav.
The Midrash presents an interesting but difficult comparison: "There is none like the God of Yeshurun, who rides upon the heaven to your help" (Devarim 33:26). R. Berakhya said: There is none like God, but who is like the God of Yeshurun? The best and the most praised among you…That is our Grandfather Israel, namely Ya'akov. Just as about God, it is written (Yeshaya 2): "And the Lord alone shall be exalted," so concerning Ya'akov it is written: "And Ya'akov remained alone." (Bereishit Rabba 77:1). The solitary state of Ya'akov is compared to that of God. This can be explained in a number of ways, either nationally or individually. The Jews are as unique in the world as God is unique throughout the cosmos. Or it could be a statement about the situation of our father Ya'akov at that moment. His perfect aloneness could be understood as that moment when we face the world alone, bereft of supporters and even the merit of our ancestors. Ya'akov is all alone, without a past or future, without a tradition or a destiny. We face our greatest trials naked and alone. Our splendid solitude at that moment mirrors God's.
But is it only at times of great trials and stress that we feel all alone? I'm not sure. Frederick Nietzsche describes loneliness as bringing us to the abyss and forcing us to make decisions. However, many of our great thinkers assume that solitude (or in the language of Reb Nachman of Breslov hitbodedut) is a beneficial state to be sought after on a regular basis. Professor Michele Carter of
Reb Moshe Chayyim Efrayim of Sudylkow wrote: In my humble opinion, in accordance with the Gemara (Sanhedrim 37a): "Each and every person must say: The world was created for my sake." When we consider the words of the Gemara, we realize that they constitute profound advice regarding the service of the Creator. That is, when a person thinks that the entire world was created for his sake, then he is the only person in the world, and the rest of the world is subordinate to him, and depends upon him. If he improves his deeds, the world continues to exist, and if not, the opposite…This explains the allusion in the aforementioned Midrash: "And Ya'akov remained alone," that is, when God helped him come to the level that he is alone in the world, as stated above, then he conjoins with God, one to one (Degel Machane Efrayim, Balak). The Rebbe teaches that feeling alone brings us to two conclusions, one scary and one reassuring: Firstly, we are totally responsible for ourselves, and, secondly, we realize in this solitude that God shares this isolation. Ya'akov discovers in his loneliness that humanity is not alone.
We all find ourselves alone at some point. What we do with this loneliness can make all the difference in our lives. Dag Hammarskjold said, 'Pray that your loneliness may spur you into finding something to live for, great enough to die for.' Ya'akov found it. Let's hope that so can we.
Rav 'loneliness is nothing but the act of questioning one's ontological existance'