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Panim El Panim: Face to Face with Loneliness | Yom Kippur 5781 Sermon

Rabbi Allison Berry

This April, after a beloved temple member died of Covid-19, I joined his family at the cemetery to say goodbye. Each of the mourners, myself included, wore a mask. We stood six feet apart, and we approached the grave only after the casket had been fully covered with earth. As the service ended, the widow did something that a few weeks earlier would have been the most natural thing in the world - she walked over to me with arms outstretched to give me a hug. I panicked. And...in an effort to maintain our physical distance, I took a step back. Within seconds my heels were sinking into the ground. I looked down and to my horror discovered I was standing on top of the grave.

As I worked to liberate myself from my predicament, I could no longer pretend everything was normal and ok. I’d given her words but what she needed was simple human touch, and that I could not safely give. As she walked away, I knew she was going home to an empty house and my heart broke for her.

Covid-19 has created whole new levels of loneliness for all of us. Vivek Murthy, former surgeon general, and physician Alice Chen writing together in the Atlantic share: “this pandemic could [and I would argue already has] triggered...a social recession - a fraying of social bonds that further unravel the longer we go without human interaction.”[1]

I know what they mean. The depths of this “social recession” is not only apparent at funerals. Over the past six months, I have seen and felt your loneliness during every phone call, every masked conversation and every Zoom meeting I attend.

In Dr. Murthy’s new book, Together released just a month ago, he beautifully defines the concept of loneliness: “[It] is the subjective feeling that you’re lacking the social connections you need. It can feel like being stranded, abandoned or cut off from the people with whom you belong - even if you’re surrounded by other people.”[2]

I know it sounds counter-intuitive, but it’s actually what’s happening around us every day.

This is my neighborhood. I live down the street. This playground used to buzz every morning when our kids arrived at school.

In this photo is Cabot Park Village - one of Newton’s senior residences - it’s just a few blocks away from the school. The seniors who live here, some of whom are Temple Shalom members, used to eat together and spend warm summer days outside.

But in March everything changed. My kids, and yours were sent home from school. Now their classes take place mostly on Zoom. They don’t have playdates or participate in sports. The seniors at Cabot Park Village have been alone in their rooms for months. They eat meals by themselves and watch through their windows as summer turns to fall.

And it’s not just our youngest children and our oldest adults who have been impacted by the loneliness of this moment. There is the friend who is newly divorced, the neighbor who spends days without speaking to a soul, the sisters who live 1000 miles apart and don’t know when they’ll see each other again. The married couple suddenly together more than they’ve ever been, who realize they no longer fit. There are the working parents like me, who already hold themselves to impossible standards and now must also be teacher, caregiver, house-keeper, and often partner 24/7 with no break in sight.

Today, one in three of us feel lonely.[3] Yet we are conditioned to believe that if this is our experience then something must be wrong with us. We feel ashamed, and then we try to hide our shame, which only exacerbates our self-doubt and makes us think we are unworthy of friendship or love.

But our tradition wants us to know that we ARE worthy; friendship and partnership are core Jewish values. From the very first lines of Genesis, we learn God wants us to seek out human connection and love:

God created the earth and the sea, and called them good - tov. God created day and night and called them tov. In fact, all of God’s creations were tov. Until God created Adam and said:

וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהִ֔ים לֹא־ט֛וֹב הֱי֥וֹת הָֽאָדָ֖ם לְבַדּ֑וֹ

Lo Tov - it is NOT GOOD - that Adam is alone.[4]

It is then God creates Chava - Eve. God’s creation is not complete without the challenge and wonder of being in relationship - panim el panim - face to face - with another human being.

Today I miss seeing your faces. And I know you miss seeing the faces of friends and family who can’t be with you. It is so unfair that there are people in our lives we cannot touch, people who mean so much to us.

But on this Yom Kippur and all the days that lie ahead - I believe we have the innate skills to combat this loneliness. We have the power to fight back.

First, we must accept what cannot be changed. That divorce is final, our loved one has died and is not coming back, we will never reconcile with the friend who did something so unthinkable, and until there is a vaccine, coronavirus is here to stay. When we struggle against pain that is truly immutable we exacerbate our loneliness. Instead, and this is hard work - we need to try to reframe our challenges, identify and then alter what we know can be changed.[5]

One way to begin this reframing is to agree right now: there is no more hiding in plain sight. If you are lonely, please tell a friend, a partner or even your medical professional. You are not deficient. You are eminently worthy of friendship and love. It is not only ok to ask for help, it is imperative. The Talmud teaches, “a captive cannot release himself from prison.”[6] So too, we cannot cure our own loneliness.

When we own our loneliness and ask for help we take a step towards changing not just our present but our future. Murthy and Chen suggest four strategies that have the potential to alleviate some of our loneliness; yes even in the middle of a pandemic:[7]

  1. “Spend 15 minutes each day communicating with [the] people you love.” 15 minutes is realistic. You can do that!
  2. “Make the time you spend with people distraction-free. Be fully present. On video chats - look at people directly. The quality of our interactions matter most.”
  3.  “Practice solitude. Work on being comfortable in your own company. Feel [your] complex feelings,” and give yourself permission to [be in the moment].


And:

  1. “Reach out and help others. When we serve we build connections and also remind ourselves that we have value to add to the world.”
     

I would also add a fifth suggestion with a Jewish spin:

On Yom Kippur we open our hearts and examine our thoughts and actions. Today the power of teshuvah is most manifest. Teshuvah is not only translated to mean “repentance,” it also means “return.” On this day, when the gates of repentance are open - we can return to those challenging relationships and circumstances, some of the reasons we feel so alone, and honestly ask ourselves: What is really holding me back? If I no longer speak with my brother or sister, parent or friend, did they abandon me or was I the one to turn away? Did I fail to show up when others needed me?

In the Jewish community Covid-19 has sparked a conversation about our values and what we owe one another. Again, we can find guidance in the book of Genesis when we read about Cain’s murder of Abel.[8] Picture the scene: Abel, dead by his brother’s hand, lays sightless on the ground. God’s anguish: “Cain - what have you done? Your brother’s blood is crying out.” We cringe at Cain’s irreverent response, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

Embedded in this ancient story is Judaism’s most fundamental teaching about what it means to be human: We are put on earth to hear and see and feel the cries of our brothers and sisters, to be each other’s keeper and hold one another. Right now, we wear masks, but this means we just need to work harder to uncover the faces underneath them. And we need to open our hearts to the suffering of people who feel forgotten by our government and our country. To make sure no one has to endure the loneliness, the hate and the pain that is all too often manifest in this world. This is Judaism’s call.

And our Temple community has answered bravely. I want to personally thank the volunteers, first- our amazing caring community --for all you have done in the past six months and what you continue to do to make sure no one is in need, alone or isolated. And beyond our caring community, many of you are creating new ways for us to love and support one another, even when we can’t be together in person.  

Anyone who has attended a digital bris or baby naming knows what I mean. I’ve had the chance this spring and summer to officiate at a few of these celebrations on Zoom - not too close to the “action,” but meaningfully present nonetheless. Despite physical distancing, and time zones, and against so many other odds, we can still see each other’s faces. We can laugh and we can cry, all of us fully present, panim el zoom.

By showing up - we declare ourselves. Despite the isolation and separation that marks this social recession, we ensure no one has to experience the sting of loneliness at the most joyous of moments or on the saddest of days.

The story is told of a man who wandered in the forest alone. After several hours, he summoned up his courage and finally cried out for help. Just around the bend, he saw a woman standing under the trees. As he approached her the man called, “I am lost in the depths of the forest, please help me find my way out.” The woman responded, “Friend, I do not know the way out either. For I, too, have been wandering. But what I do know is this - the way from which I came, leads nowhere. So let us join hands, and find our way out together.”[9]

On this Yom Kippur, the start of a New Year, 5781, we may not know the way out of the wilderness, and we cannot go back in time, but we can meet one another in the here and now, and find strength together in the darkness. In so many ways we have already joined hands. But more of us need to do it and with deeper intention. We must use this adversity to strengthen the relationships in our lives. If we do, we will emerge stronger than before. And then, when our masks at last are lowered, and we are once again panim el panim, we will know we are on the right path, a better path, and we will find nechama, נֶחָמָה, comfort in the dawning of a new day[10].

Watch Rabbi Berry deliver her sermon on Yom Kippur morning:


[1] Murthy and Chen, “The Coronavirus Could Cause a Social Recession,” The Atlantic Magazine, March, 2020. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/03/america-faces-social-recession/608548/

[2] Murthy, Vivek. Together, Harper Wave Publishing, April 2020. p. 8.

[4] Genesis 1:1-31, 2:18.

[5] Some of the ideas in this paragraph were inspired by: Legge, David. “Preach the Word.” https://www.preachtheword.com/sermon/misc0053-loneliness.shtml

[6] Talmud, Berachot 5a

[7] All quotes in the 4 bullet points from:Murthy and Chen, “The Coronavirus Could Cause a Social Recession,” The Atlantic Magazine, March, 2020. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/03/america-faces-social-recession/608548/

[8] Genesis 4:1-10

[9] Hasidic Parable, probably from the oral tradition, relayed in Yiddish by S.Y. Agnon in his book, Days of Awe. I created my own version of Agnon’s retelling based on a retelling by Rabbi Marc Katz in his Eli Talk, 2014: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=acL83rTINMU

[10] Special thanks to my coach, Michele Lowe. Her careful edits and wisdom make anything I write better!

Thu, October 29 2020 11 Cheshvan 5781