How A Communal Celebration Reminds Us of the Dangers of Loneliness

This post originally appeared on the Rabbis Without Borders blog. You can read the original here.

One of the fastest growing epidemics to affect our individual emotional and physical health is loneliness.

Much has been written about loneliness recently, and especially how it can have deleterious effects on our health similar to smoking and even moreso than obesity. Loneliness can lead to heart disease, anxiety, depression and a host of other clinical diagnoses. Loneliness is found among the young and old, partnered and single, regardless of gender. And while we may connect loneliness to situations of illness or grief, loneliness can be found among any number of life situations.

And loneliness is less about being isolated—even people who are around a lot of people all the time or are active on social media can feel lonely. Loneliness comes when one does not have deep and meaningful relationships that allow for the development of close bonds and open and honest engagements.

But we don’t need studies to tell us this, Jewish tradition teaches us this as well.

Later this week on our Jewish calendar we mark the festival of Shemini Atzeret (literally, “the eighth day of assembly”). The reference to the holiday in the Torah is vague, indicating that it is both the last day of Sukkot and a separate holiday all together. Certain practices developed around Shemini Atzeret to set it apart from Sukkot: a prayer for rain was added to the liturgy, the use of the ritual items associated with Sukkot—the lulav and Etrog and the sukkah—are put aside. In later times, the newer festival of Simchat Torah—in which we celebrate the ending and beginning of our annual Torah reading cycle—was appended onto Shemini Atzeret.

Yet the original reason for the holiday is unclear. In Leviticus 23:36 we read, “On the eighth day you shall observe a sacred occasion (atzeret) and bring an offering by fire to God, it is a solemn gathering, you shall not work at your occupations.” But why a separate festival at the end of Sukkot? Rashi, the medieval French commentator, offers an explanation on this verse:

The word atzeret is derived from the root “to hold back” and suggests: I, God, keep you back with Me one day more. It is similar to the case of a king who invited his children to a banquet for a certain number of days. When the time arrived for them to take their departure he said, “Children, I beg of you, stay one day more with me; it is so hard for me to part with you!”

The commentary suggests that the holiday was instituted as a way for God to say to the Israelites that after all this time spent together, through Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and Sukkot, God doesn’t want it to end. God doesn’t want the physical, spiritual and emotional connection to the Israelites to be severed.

In other words, God gets lonely too.

Loneliness is a part of the human condition. And taken to extremes, it can be very harmful to our well-being. Shemini Azteret can be understood as a day on the Jewish calendar to remind us of this fact. But rather than simply accept it, we commit to do what we can do to make ourselves and others feel less lonely—to open up our homes and our hearts, to forge meaningful connections, to actively listen and empathize, and to reach out and draw close.

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