Life is full of loneliness, misery and suffering-and it's all over much too soon.
-- Woody Allen
The dread of loneliness is greater than the fear of bondage, so we get married. -- Cyril Connolly
In one of the most dramatic and mysterious biblical tales, the Torah presents an unforgettable moment when "Jacob remained alone and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn (1)."
The battle, which transpired in the middle of the night, was fierce. "When he perceived that he could not defeat him," the Torah relates (2), "he struck the socket of his [Jacob's] hip." Yet, at the end, Jacob prevailed and as a result of that victory, Jacob - as well as we, all of his descendants -- received a new name: Israel, "For you have struggled with the divine and with man and you have triumphed (3)" (the word Israel in Hebrew, Yisroel, means to struggle, or to contend with (4)).
Alone in the World
What catches one's attention in this biblical narrative is its opening line: "And Jacob remained alone." At this critical moment, perhaps the most defining moment of his life, Jacob is alone in the world. In the midst of his greatest battle, Jacob becomes aware of his solitude.
This readily evokes in our imagination a Kierkegaardian notion of existential loneliness, in which in a moment of truth, each of us must face the profound sense of solitude innate to the human condition. It echoes the observation by Thomas Wolfe, “The whole conviction of my life now rests upon the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, peculiar to myself and to a few other solitary men, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence."
Yet a most surprising Midrashic comment (5) turns it around.
The Midrash sees Jacob's aloneness that night, as a precursor to a day, when the prophet Isaiah predicts (6), "Humankind's haughtiness will be humbled and men's arrogance will be brought down; G-d will be exalted alone on that day."
"Just as G-d 'will be exalted alone,'" comments the Midrash, "so too, 'Jacob remained alone."
This comparison seems strange. What is the connection between Jacob's lonely struggle with his adversary in the middle of the night, to the time when G-d's presence alone will be exalted in our world?
Writing Your Own Chapter There are two forms of loneliness. The first paralyzes, while the latter elicits the full majesty of human creativity and courage.
The first is the loneliness experienced as a result of feeling how, in Orson Welles’ words, "We're born alone, we live alone, we die alone. Only through our love and friendship can we create the illusion for the moment that we're not alone." We feel that a part of us, perhaps our deepest part, is destined to remain solitary in a universe, misunderstood and unappreciated.
The second form of loneliness stems from the awareness that I, nobody else, must shape my destiny; the ball is in my court, and that nobody can accomplish what I was meant to accomplish. The world looks to me for my unique contribution.
This form of solitude is poignantly described in the Talmud in these words: "The first human being (Adam) was created alone," in order to teach us, "that each and every one is obligated to say, 'For my sake was the world created (7).'"
This is not a dramatic exaggeration to enhance one's self-esteem; in fact, it reflects an essential doctrine of Judaism that there is something you must give to existence which no else can give and without which the universe will be lacking something essentially vital. The world was created for you.
Nietzsche believed that the world is a battlefield and man its warrior; Barnum declared that the world is a circus and man its clown; Shakespeare taught that the world is a stage and man the actor. The Torah's message is that the world is a book and every human being its author. Only you can author your chapter.
Confronting Your Struggle
This may be the meaning behind the Torah's emphasis that "Jacob remained alone and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn." This is not merely a technical or even an existential description. Rather, in the battle that would give Jacob and his people their ultimate name and identity - Israel - our forefather was imparting to us the critical component required when confronting our own battles, individually and collectively, over the following four millennia.
When you are faced with tremendous battles on the moral or the psychological front, you must imagine that right now, you are the only human being present in the universe. All of existence awaits your next move.
You and G-d are alone in the world (8).
E-mail the author at: YYJ@algemeiner.com
1) Genesis 32:25.
2) Ibid. 32:26.
3) Ibid. 32:29.
4) Radak, Sherashim. Cf. Hosea 9:6; 12:5, quoted in Rashi to Genesis 32:29.
5) Midrash Rabah Bereishis 77:1. See Matnus Kehunah there for his explanation.
6) Isaiah 2:17
7) Mishnah Sanhedrin 37a.
8) This essay is based on Degel Machane Ephraim Parshas Vayishlach. The author, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Ephrayim of Sedlikov (d. in 1800) was a grandson of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chassidism and one of the great spiritual masters of his generation. His work Degel Machne Ephrayim is a Chassidic commentary on the Pentateuch.