High Holy Days Sermons 5779

Kol Nidre, 5779
Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin
Paramount Theater

(click to read PDF or listen to recording)


One of the loneliest times in my life, was when I was first ordained, and starting at my first congregation in Buffalo. I felt as if I had no idea what I was doing and I was terrified that someone would find out. Sure, I went to school and served as a Rabbinic intern in multiple congregations, I’d worked as a chaplain in hospital, I had many practical rabbinics classes, all training that was geared toward helping me know what this next step was about. But when I got there, I still felt that I was not equipped. I didn’t know the community, I didn’t know how the staff worked together, and was still getting used to being addressed as “Rabbi.” I didn’t want to ask basic questions for fear that people would think that I wasn’t up to the task. And, at the time, I didn’t reach out to others, like my classmates or other rabbis, because I was embarrassed, and thought that it shouldn’t be this hard. So, even though I was surrounded by many people, on a regular basis, I felt alone.

I imagine many of you can relate to this, the loneliness that comes with transition. Or maybe there are other times in your life that you are thinking about, times marked by feeling isolated, mentally and emotionally distant from other people. Perhaps a time when you felt like no one understood what you were going through. It’s something that virtually every person feels in their lives. In some cases, situations change, new relationships emerge, time passes and people move out of that sense of loneliness. Sometimes it takes longer. Maybe because of health concerns, our own or that of someone we love and care for, Or maybe we are in grief. And, sometimes it persists, and we feel like we don’t have meaningful connections with others, and that people don’t understand who we are and what we need. Nearly everyone has gone through times of loneliness, we know how painful it is. And, some of us live with that struggle on a daily basis.

Research shows that the number of people living with loneliness is on the rise. Recently, the health insurer Cigna conducted a study to assess the percentages of adults who experience loneliness. They found that nearly half of Americans report sometimes or always feeling alone or left out. Nearly half. One in four do not feel as though there are people who really understand them. Two in five feel that their relationships are not meaningful and that they are isolated.

Those are pretty significant numbers. Look around for a minute at all of the people sitting in this theater, and imagine that nearly half of us would say that we are lonely. Or, if you argue that we are not necessarily representative of the population as a whole, imagine it’s one in three, even one in four. That’s a lot people, in our society and right here in our community.

Truly, there is no shortage of issues that we could address together tonight, but, when we look at those numbers, how common the experience of loneliness is, they suggest that loneliness may be an aspect of many of the other issues we deal with, as individuals, and as a society. Helplessness, for instance,leads to loneliness and loneliness can lead to helplessness, which is detrimental in a world where there is much work to do. Loneliness is also a symptom of people feeling disconnected, and that lack of connection with others in a broad sense is a contributing factor to the polarization we are experiencing in our society. Whether it is the root of those
issues, or a consequence of them, it seems that, as a community of nearly 3000 people, we may be in a unique position to address loneliness, and that, in turn, may build a foundation for addressing other issues we see.

Yet, being lonely is not something that we often like to talk about. Maybe it feels shameful, something that we shouldn’t discuss because people will judge us, that there is something wrong with us if we are feeling lonely. But, if the statistics are true, and almost half of the people in our society feel lonely, then loneliness isn’t shameful, it is a normal part of the way we experience life.

And, really, it has always been a part of the human experience. In fact, an argument could be made that the Torah, in its entirety, is the story of combating loneliness. Specifically, God’s loneliness.

In the beginning, there is only God, talking to Godself. Let there be light! God exclaims and then God, Godself, creates light. God decides to make a creature in God’s likeness, a human being, Adam. One of the first things that God says is that it is not good for humans to be alone, and so Eve is created as well. Now, Adam wouldn’t have been able to articulate that he was lonely at this point, having been only created that day. So, maybe, it was God’s experience that was being projected. God knew what it was to be alone, and maybe God didn’t want that for humans. But creating companions for humans didn’t necessarily change God’s situation. Through time, God had interactions with individuals, but it didn’t seem to be enough. Because after much time passes, God goes looking for a people, a people with whom God could be connected throughout the generations. God says as much. 

In Nitzavim, our Torah portion for tomorrow morning, God says, “I make this covenant with you who are here, and those who are not here.” That is, the covenant is made with future generations as well, an eternal bond. 

The strength of the relationship moving forward was also based on what they had experienced together in the past. Shared experiences are an important means of connecting people. Think of how powerful it is to sit and reminisce with others about the past. Reminding ourselves of what happened reminds us of our connections. Because of God’s relationship with us, and because of our shared experiences, we can say, “Hey God! Remember that time when you split the sea? That was so crazy!” or we could say “Remember that time when we kept complaining because we didn’t have any meat and you totally freaked out on us and sent that plague!?” Even if the times themselves were difficult, reminiscing about is a significant way to reaffirm those connections,which is why we remind ourselves of those shared experiences at every prayer service, at every holiday celebration. We made God feel less alone, and in reminding ourselves of what we went through with God as well as with the whole of the Jewish people, we may feel less alone as well.

Additionally, sharing of yourself, even when it is hard, can also help people feel connected with others. God gave us Torah in order to share God’s self. It is a way of giving us an insight into what is important and meaningful. Studying the text, turning it over and over, is our way of understanding God. And when you feel like others understand you, you feel less alone. When the Torah ends with Deuteronomy, God and the people, having had shared experiences and a new understanding of each other,are secure in their covenant and are ready to move on, together, to a connected future.

A while ago, I had a friend who tended to be very self conscious, about her appearance, in general, and her weight in particular, because she felt that she was too large. She once confided in me that one of the reasons that she was so self conscious is because, whenever she went to the doctor, one of the first questions she was asked was if she was pregnant. “It must be because of how I look,” she said, “that I’m so big that they always think that I’m pregnant.” “Actually,” I responded, “they ask everyone that. How they decide to treat a patient may be different if someone is pregnant, so they ask everyone that question.” She looked stunned at first, then perplexed, and then she laughed. Just in sharing something with someone else, she suddenly realized that she was less alone in her experience than she thought. Sharing herself made her feel less self conscious, and less lonely.

I wonder how many of us have similar stories.Things about which we were embarrassed, even ashamed, because we thought there was something particular about us that no one would understand or sympathize, only to learn that is was not so unique, and maybe, then, not as embarrassing or shameful? Many of our experiences, even if they aren’t shared in the same moment, are the same kinds of experiences that others have. Confiding in people, friends, family, members of your community, will help us feel less alone.

Though, of course, there will also be times when people may want to confide in you and their experience may no be common. In those instances, remember we are in a position to make people feel understood or to make people feel judged. There may be times when people share that something difficult or terrible happened to them. If they do, listen to them and believe them. We know, in our world today that there are too many examples of people sharing stories of being assaulted, attacked, or otherwise victimized in a terrible way, and they are attacked in return. Believe them, even if it sounds unbelievable. If they are not truthful, the responsibility and guilt is on them. But, if we don’t believe someone who is attempting to find support for their pain and suffering, it is on us. Seek ways to alleviate suffering. We do not want to be the cause of someone else’s pain.

Because, loneliness is not only difficult and painful, but it can also lead to other health risks. Studies report that loneliness is comparable to smoking and alcohol consumption as risk factors for premature death. Loneliness is linked to heart disease and stroke , depression and suicide. Of course, not everyone who is lonely develops these significant health issues, but people who are lonely, especially chronically, are at a higher risk in so many ways. Trying to address loneliness in our society, and in our community, might go a long way to alleviating suffering and enabling people to lead healthier lives.

So, where are you in your life? We all have moments and times of loneliness. Would you describe yourself as lonely? Do you feel isolated? Do you feel like your relationships are not fulfilling, or you don’t get to talk with people enough to feel like you are connected? If we turn back to Torah to help us understand what we might do, we see that God, in God’s loneliness, tried to reach out and connect with others. God initially reached out through helping the Israelites, by bringing them out of slavery in Egypt, then experienced life with us, and then revealed Torah. As we are made in God’s image, whether we take it literally or metaphorically, perhaps the text is urging us to reach out. Find opportunities for shared experiences and for service to the community. Perhaps there are ways for you to share more of who you are to connect on a different level with others.

It’s not easy, in fact, it took God hundreds of years to reach out to the people as a whole, instead of just a select individual here or there, but it was necessary to ease the loneliness. Please, reach out to me or to the other clergy and senior staff. We will listen and can try to help connect you with individuals, projects and groups in the community. Come to a Community Conversation and talk about things that are meaningful. Come to services regularly and be a part of the core group of congregants who spend shabbat together every week. As our president, Sara Klein, challenged us so beautifully on Rosh Hashanah,find the people who will help you to complete your jigsaw puzzle. It may be the person sitting next to you. Perhaps you can help ease their loneliness, even as they help you alleviate yours. One of the reasons that we exist as a community is to feel connected to others who share our people’s history, our values and our ideals.

Out of loneliness, God reaches out to the Israelites. Yet, once God does, then the responsibility for the covenant mostly rests on the people, and not on God. It was up to the people to respond, and to ensure that the relationship remained strong. The people were responsible for carrying out the tradition. So, too, is it the responsibility of those to whom others reach out to listen, to walk with someone in their pain and loneliness, to encourage, to include and to reach out in return. Some of you are great listeners, others are good with planning activities and facilitating shared experiences. Think of your strengths. What’s the way that might work for you to get to know other people and maybe help someone feel less lonely? To be sure, you can’t cure loneliness for someone else, it takes time, and some of the work, only the individual can do, but you can relieve some of the isolation, and offer people opportunities to connect with others.

And, when we, at the Temple, ask for volunteers to host an extra person at your seder table, please volunteer. When you see someone sitting by themselves at shabbat services, say hello. Ask them to share something about their week and share something about yours. If you see another parent at religious school who may be new or who looks out of sorts, introduce yourself. Ask them to be a part of your conversation. Invite neighbors to celebrate Shabbat with you in your home. And if you are invited, please say yes. Make the effort to make people feel connected. And make the effort to connect yourself. Not everyone who is alone is lonely, but for the people who are, a small gesture of kindness and interest in who they are will be meaningful and important. It will show that people care. And, if we can do more to alleviate the loneliness that so many feel, we will strengthen ourselves, we will strengthen each other, and we will be more able to do the good that our world needs.

Nearly half of all adults feel lonely. But, we, as a community, can be there for each other. God reached out to the people because God was lonely. And, in reaching back, we eased God’s loneliness and found that we were less lonely as well. When we feel lonely, may we have the courage to reach out to others. When others reach out to us, may we have the compassion to listen and to connect. And in this reaching, may we find ourselves and our community with less pain and less loneliness at this time next year.

Kein yihi ratzon. May this be God’s will.


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