Being alone does not have to be being lonely. Being alone does not have to signal a negative condition for we therapists of many kinds to automatically try to fix. Across religions, we are consistently taught two lessons on this: a) we are not alone, for G-d in some form is with us; and b) being alone can be one of the most productive, instructive, and insightful times of our lives.
The year was 5705 on our Hebrew Calendar. The son of a German-Jewish family from Queens, New York, wrote the lyrics to a modern anthem. His collaborator, writing the music, was Episcopalian, but delivered eulogies from Temple Emanu-El in Manhattan and his grandson wrote that the Jewish heritage from the music-writer’s own grandfather influenced his work.
It was a high point in the American Musical Theater. On 7 Iyar 5705, also known as April 19, 1945 (after sunset), Rogers and Hammerstein II introduced us to “You’ll Never Walk Alone” at the end of “Carousel,” replete with biblical references such as the rainbow at the end of the storm.
As my dear colleague, Rabbi Richard Address, points out in his December 3, 2020 commentary on Vayishlach, “We stand alone?” The essence here is the question mark, one of the great question marks of life.
The parsha teaches l’vado, “and he was alone.” The narrator, G-d, says this. Jacob does not say, “I am alone.” It was the being alone that enabled the wrestling with the angel, changing his name to Israel, and our people forever becoming known as B’nai Israel.
In Genesis, Adam is also l’vado, alone. However, again, it is not Adam complaining that he is alone. It is the narrator, HaShem, telling us that Adam was alone, and it was not good to be alone. The solution is the appearance of woman, Eve, a conglomeration of blessings and curses.
When Job is alone, having lost so much, HaShem, in the form of friends, shows up, some supportive, some not so supportive. When Naomi starts the journey back to her homeland from Moab, where she was able to solve her personal famine issue but lost family member after family member, Naomi thinks she is alone, but turns around and there is Ruth. The word to describe this scene is powerful and used rarely: v’dabek, “and Ruth cleaved to Naomi. Alone, but not alone, that is Naomi now.
This parsha continues the story of another way to be alone: estrangement. As chaplains, we hear this every day from patients. We hear variations of, “I have a daughter, BUT she has not spoken to me in 15 years.” The tendency is to help the patient, if she/he wants, to unpack the estrangement with clues to repair. That works when the estrangement is damaging emotionally, the result of an argument where the trigger now seems trivial in retrospective. Too often, the estrangement began with what we call “grief-driven fights,” arguments over end-of-life health care and funeral arrangements, arguments where all too often the desires of the patient, if they could be known, are subordinated.
In this parsha, Jacob and Esau reunite for the burial of their father, and then go their separate ways again. When Joseph, son of Jacob, estranged from his own brothers, takes the “road less traveled” and reveals himself to his brothers, his first words are not, “I am so glad to be with you again,” but rather an inquiry about his father, Jacob.
As Rabbi Johanan Bickhardt teaches, in the name of the Dubner Maggid, estrangements have always been a part of Jewish “family life.” We do not have a monopoly on this malady, and it is not always so bad. Although related by genealogy trees, family members can develop different styles, travel different pathways, reduce or eliminate contact with each other, and it really does not need to bother each side.
“Hollywood Endings” may resolve estrangements, but, “We are not in Kansas anymore [“Wizard of Oz”]. When we are not in Kansas or Hollywood, Psalms teaches that “G-d” is the “Healer of Shattered hearts.”
Barry Pitegoff is a Staff Chaplain at Bon Secours Community Hospital in Port Jervis, New York. Barry enjoyed thousands of hours of volunteer chaplaincy at hospitals, hospices, and prisons while he was vice president of market research for Visit Florida, the state’s tourism board. After retirement, Barry transformed into professional chaplaincy by taking a second Master’s Degree and two years’ of hospital internships. Barry was awarded the title of BCC, Board Certified Chaplain at the May 2019 conference of the NAJC (Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains). In 2020, Chaplain Barry was elected to the Board of NAJC, serves on Chaplain Review Committees, and facilitates a monthly national video call of Jewish hospital chaplains.