We have all experienced loneliness. For some of us, the experience has been momentary and temporary. For others, it has been pervasive and lifelong.
It has even been said that loneliness is an existential condition, part of being human. This position has been exquisitely expressed by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik in his book, The Lonely Man of Faith:
"I am lonely. Let me emphasize, however, that by saying 'I am lonely' I do not intend to convey to you the impression that I am alone. I, thank God, do enjoy the love and friendship of many. I meet people, talk, preach, argue, reason; I am surrounded by comrades and acquaintances. And yet, companionship and friendship do not alleviate the passional experience of loneliness which trails me constantly. I am lonely because at times I feel rejected and thrust away by everybody, not excluding my most intimate friends, and the words of the Psalmist 'my father and my mother have forsaken me' quite often ring in my ears."
What does existential loneliness have to do with this week's Torah portion, Parshat Noach (Genesis 9:18-11:32)?
To answer to this question, we must return to the classroom to which I introduced you, dear reader, last week. You will remember that I long ago volunteered to teach the basic concepts of Judaism to a small group of novices on the subject. I had chosen the book of Genesis as our text, and, for the purposes of this column, I had given the three students the names Richard, Simon, and Leon.
At the beginning of our second class session, it became apparent at once that the three students had each done their homework. They had carefully read the story of Noah with an eye toward discovering basic Jewish concepts therein.
Richard, for example, was impressed that Noah was commanded by the Almighty to allow into the Ark two distinct categories of animals: clean and unclean. Clearly, even he was aware of the distinction between kosher and non-kosher animals. Kashrut is certainly a basic Jewish concept.
Simon, in turn, focused on the verse which insists that acts of murder be avenged. "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed..." (Genesis 9:6). No doubt about it, basic Judaism is tough on murderers.
But Leon, in his typically and unpredictably creative way, found a different story intriguing, and had an equally intriguing explanation for it.
In Chapter 9, verse 20, we read of the first project undertaken by Noah after he is rescued from the deluge: "Noah, the tiller of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard. He drank of the wine and became drunk..." The Torah continues to narrate the additional embarrassment which he subsequently experienced.
Not only was Leon fascinated by this account of the first abuse of alcohol, but he believed he knew why Noah turned to drink. "Noah," he said, "was lonely. His extended family, his friends, his enemies, indeed, all of mankind perished in the flood. He felt isolated, alone, and depressed. No wonder he turned to the fruit of the vine."
Once again, Leon not only was onto something, but he provided me with the opportunity for further commentary. For one thing, I was immediately able to point out that drunkenness, following a catastrophe which left one feeling alone, will also be found in the Torah portion we will read in two weeks, Vayera. There we will encounter Lot, who, after escaping the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, also falls victim to inebriation and embarrassment (see Genesis 19:30-35).
The basic Jewish teaching here, I emphasized, was not merely that individuals turn to drink for solace, and that the consequences are often disastrous. Rather, it is that there are other more constructive and more noble responses to the admittedly dreadful feeling of loneliness.
Rabbi Soloveitchik, as we read above, struggled with the feeling. But he coped with it in so very many ways. He built a family, made friends, studied and taught, argued and reasoned. His answer to loneliness was not to withdraw even further from society. And it was certainly not to seek refuge in the somnolence provided by anesthetizing substances.
Noah and Lot remind me of the numerous Holocaust survivors I have been privileged to meet. They too witnessed a world destroyed. And some of them did indeed retreat into, if not drunkenness, then lives of loneliness and despair.
But so many others, and they are the real heroes of the Holocaust, eschewed the examples of Noah and Lot. Not only did they not allow themselves to fall prey to the fruit of the vine, but they dedicated their lives to the cultivation of different fruits entirely: families, communities, institutions of learning, and lives of dedication to the well-being of others.
And so we have another basic lesson of Judaism: Man is by nature destined to experience episodes of loneliness, especially after tragic and sometimes catastrophic loss. The biblical example of drinking as a way to struggle with misfortune is but one of the numerous ways that man has discovered to numb himself against emotional pain rather than rise above it.
Loneliness is a challenge. Like all challenges, we are empowered to either yield and surrender, or, as Judaism teaches, cope, eventually grow, and finally triumph.