The Torah Column is supported by a generous gift from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.
Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks, is an ancient pilgrimage festival that celebrates perhaps the most fundamental moment in the collective life of the Jewish people: the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. It is a holy time that highlights the connection between God and a community of believers.
The Torah Naso portion is usually read after Shavuot, but the connection between the two is not obvious. This is because in Naso we read about a radically different kind of sacred experience, which is not collective in nature, but rather deeply individualistic.
In chapter six of the Book of Numbers we find a description of the Naziror Nazarite, a man or woman who distinguishes himself and separates himself from mainstream Jewry through a series of special practices designed to consecrate the Nazarite exclusively to God.
The Nazarene, a sort of spiritual lone wolf, is an aberration in the history of the Jewish people. For centuries, Judaism focused much more on the importance of community, often downplaying or even ignoring the value of the solitary individual and their unique needs.
In Pirkei Avot (2:4), we find the following well-known teaching: “Do not separate yourself from the community. There are countless others.
Jews throughout the ages have placed the primacy of the collective, of the group, above practically everything. Whether it was a ghetto, a shtetl or a neighborhood, community interests and needs generally took precedence over personal agendas, aspirations and dreams.
But what about the needs and desires of the individual? Is there a place within the Jewish community, and within the Jewish religion, for one who wants to focus on inner spirituality rather than community projects, on personal work rather than collective practice? ?
Spiritual seekers have known for millennia of the powerful role solitude can play in our inner development.
Individuals of various religious traditions have participated in solitary retreats and pilgrimages; some, like the early Christian monks of the desert, lived alone in caves or cells; others, such as the Hasidic mystic Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, developed their own ritualized practices of self-isolation (hitbodedut).
Many great revolutionary spiritual leaders, such as the Buddha and the Ba’al Shem Tov (the founder of Hasidism), first withdrew from the world before returning to share the knowledge and wisdom revealed to them. .
What connects all of these figures is not theology or worldview, but a common understanding that solitude can foster insight as well as healing and personal transformation.
Our ability to be alone is linked to becoming aware of our deepest feelings, needs and impulses, to self-discovery and self-realization. It can tell us how narcissistic we are, or it can show us how little we care about our own well-being.
Loneliness is a teacher. But he is also a healer.
One of the oldest and most vital Jewish mourning rituals is that of the seated shiva, which involves partially separating the mourner (who is forbidden to work during the observance) from the rest of the community for a period of seven days after the burial of a loved one. .
This practice recognizes that dealing with loss – grief – is a difficult, painful, and largely lonely process that can be hindered rather than helped by distractions.
Over time, the bereaved person, still hurt, often comes to understand that the meaning of life is not exclusively tied to personal relationships, that the life of the person deprived of these relationships also has meaning.
Although love, friendship and community are an important part of what makes life worthwhile, they are not the only source of fulfillment and growth. What happens in human beings when we are alone is as valuable as what happens in our interactions with others.
We in the Jewish world need to create a safe space for the spiritual lone wolves among us, for those lonely seekers who are striving for God and working to become their best selves. Sometimes this effort and work will be better served by separating from the established community.