How to Deal with Existential Loneliness
Its now nine weeks, or sixty days, since I have written
my weekly column. Instead, we have been sending you weekly
plagiarized excerpts from my book, 60 DAYS: A
Spiritual Guide to the High Holidays.
I was off the hook, so to speak,
without the pressure of having to produce a weekly thought.
But the party is over. Having run out of excerpts, here I
am trying to get back into the groove, hopefully with some
So where do we begin? From the beginning, I
guess. As we leave the high-holiday season, the obvious question
is: What do we do when we are not inspired and do not have
the power of the holidays to lift us to a greater place?
I received an e-mail today from someone who
had just finished using the book 60 DAYS. I admit to
you that this is the first time I have truly experienced the
holidays. Thank you for bringing them alive. But I must confess
that I am now experiencing a letdown. What do we do now, after
the 60 days have ended?
I replied to him that he shouldnt worry,
because were all in the same situation, and I would
answer his question in this weeks e-mail. Heres
The holiday season is a rich one. Filled with
awe and joy, renewal and sanctity, introspection and celebration,
Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Simchat Torah offer us
a profound spiritual experience.
But in direct disproportion to the great holiday
high is the contrasting down that we inevitably experience
as the inspiration dissipates and we reenter our conventional
Cheshvan, the month following the holidays,
is the only month in the year devoid of any holidays. No wonder
that the mazal (sign) of this month is Scorpio. The
venomous scorpion represents the challenges of material life
which begin in Cheshvan. Materialism can be toxic if it is
not tamed and channeled. Indeed, throughout history many of
the worst persecutions of Jews began in this month of the
What is the point of giving us a month that
is so devoid of holidays? And especially in such stark contrast
to the preceding month filled with holidays.
Cheshvan is the month of existential loneliness.
It may be empty of special days, but it has one thing going
for it: This month reflects the nature of life on earth. So
dont worry my friend. Youre not alone in your
loneliness. Were all in the same existential boat.
But what is the answer to the question: What
purpose does this month serve?
Over Sukkot I had the honor to sit in a Sukkah
with a distinguished Chossid, Rabbi Zalman Posner, who shared
with me the following moving story. As a young man he was
once summoned by the previous Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak
Schneersohn. The year was 1949, and as Reb Zalman told it
to me, it was hard to understand all the words of the Rebbe,
so it was crucial to also watch his hand gestures.
The Rebbe began dramatically (in Yiddish): When
a neshomo (soul) has to come down to Earth, it doesnt
want to go. Why? Because heaven is warm and comfortable, while
life on Earth is cold and dark (kalt un finzter).
What happens? In heaven the soul is ordered: You must
descend below. And to demonstrate the point the Rebbe
took his index finger and repeatedly pointed downward in a
deliberate motion, you must go down below into the dark
and cold world, and there you must bring light (machen
The Rebbe then continued and instructed Reb
Zalman to travel on a mission (shlichus) to a certain
city, which may not be as comfortable as staying home, with
the objective of beginning some spiritual light to the city.
To this day I never forget, Reb
Zalman told me, the Rebbes finger pointing downward,
you must go down and illuminate the dark and cold world.
Ultimately, Reb Zalman would settle in Nashville,
Tennessee, where he is a Rabbi and educator until today.
I was deeply moved by hearing his first hand
account. Firstly, because it is a consolation to know
and to validate the fact that this world is dark and
cold, and that we were deliberately sent here to illuminate
our surroundings. Secondly, that we have the power to illuminate
the world; that ultimately light is stronger than darkness.
We just need to never forget our mission.
Noah too was faced with this dilemma. After
seeing the world self-destructing due to human corruption,
Noah was terrified of reentering the world and beginning anew.
He actually had to be commanded by G-d, leave the ark,
and commanded, be fruitful and multiply. Though
Adam was already given this command, it had to be reiterated
to Noah after the flood. Because after the human race had
abused its contract with existence and forfeited its right
to exist, the contract had to be renewed a renewed
commitment to be fruitful and multiply and transform
the world into a Divine home.
This also explains the mysterious episode following
the flood. Noah first sends out the raven to check out if
the land has dried after the flood. He then sent a dove, once,
twice, three times until the dove no longer returns,
indicating that it had found a dry resting place.
The raven represents gevurah severity/judgment/discipline.
The dove represents chesed or tiferet
love/sensitivity/compassion. Noah felt that after the people
had abused G-ds gifts and corrupted the entire world,
now the only way to go is with severity and discipline. Like
a delinquent child, Noah felt that the only way to begin life
anew after the colossal failure of mankind was through the
ravens law and justice. Since the
inclination of mans heart is evil from his youth
(Noach 8:21), the predominant force in life has to be aggressive
judgment and discipline.
But Noah was wrong. It was not the aggressive
raven but the compassionate dove that discovered the dry land.
It is the dove that first returns with an olive branch in
its beak, and then becomes the first creature to return to
dry land, demonstrating that even after the great crimes and
corruption of the flood generation, we do not give up hope
on the human race. Even after bitter disappointment, even
after destruction we do not become bitter and hardened. Yes,
we have been humbled, but we still recognize that the primary
driving force in life must be love and compassion. Discipline
is necessary, but only as a sub-set of love.
[This is true both on a personal level and a
collective historical one. One Kabbalist explains that the
raven represents the world of aggressive Esau father
of the Western/Roman world. The dove represents Israel (Megaleh
Amukot, ofen 40). In history first aggressive Esau would rule,
but slowly, slowly, as the world becomes more refined, it
gets acclimated to the balance of the tiferet of the
So, the next time you face a dilemma, a challenge,
the next time you encounter a disappointment, the next time
you witness the pettiness, greed and corruption around you
and wonder whether we can ever overcome this challenge
visualize the Rebbes finger pointing downward: You
must go down into the cold and dark world, and there you must