2013: Who Knows One? I Know One
Echad Mi Yodea?
Echad Anee Yodea.
Who knows one?
I know one.
One is when you get home and turn on the answering machine and the voice say “There are no messages,” and you feel like the voice is saying, “There are no messages, not a single one, because there is not a soul in the world that could care less whether you’re breathing or not.” And you feel like the voice is putting you down for being such a loser.
One is when you feel totally alone, marooned on an island without any communication, you’re Robinson Crusoe without Friday, you’re Tom Hanks in Cast Away without your volleyball Wilson, you’re totally isolated without another human being.
One is when you think that Bob Dylan is mocking you when he sings:
When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose
You’re invisible now, you got no secrets to conceal
How does it feel?
Ah, how does it feel?
To be on your own
With no direction home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?
One is to think Dylan is mocking you.
Or one is to say, like Otis Redding, that, “this loneliness won’t leave you alone.”
One is when you live in a house with other people and they gang up on you or leave you out of the loop or just co-exist with you and it feels worse than if you were living alone.
Who knows one? I know one. One is the way you feel when you thought you were as close as you could be to another person only to find out it isn’t mutual, it never was, and that person has had a foot and a half out the door for years.
As Three Dog Night sang, one is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do.
There is a haunting scene in a movie called “About Schmidt” where the aging title character played by Jack Nicholson retires, and when he walks out of the office building he sees that all his stuff is literally in the trash. All his work, all his files for which he had lived as a loyal employee, is now just thrown-out boxes of garbage. What a horrible moment! But a lot of us have known that moment when we realize how transient our efforts, our best efforts, turned out to be.
A man was on his way home one day and he saw a little boy crying behind a tree. “Why are you crying?” he asked. The boy answered, “Because I was playing hide and seek.” The man asked, “But it’s a game. Why are you crying?” The boy said, “I’m crying because I’m hiding but nobody’s seeking.” That’s what one can be: Hiding and no one is seeking.
Who knows one? I know a different kind of one.
One is the way you feel when you have such a strong relationship with another human being that you don’t know where that person begins and you end and where you begin and that person ends.
One is the way you feel when her victories are your victories and your victories are her victories and his defeats are your defeats and you take his losses harder than he does.
But even then, one is the way you feel when you’ve shared a lifetime with someone and then he dies, despite everything you could possibly do, he dies, and you don’t quite know how you’re still breathing or what you’re breathing for.
Who knows one? We all know, or will know, one.
Half of the adults in this country are single. As many people are not married as are married. It used to be that people married young and were parted only in death. If death came to one partner, the surviving partner remarried.
Now we marry later or don’t marry at all; many of us divorce and stay single. Here is an instructive fact:
The typical American will spend more of his or her life unmarried than married. (2)
And yet we make it seem like living by yourself is so unusual and so sad.
We bend our heads to the side, and say, “How are you doing?” In other words, “you poor thing.” We worry that she hasn’t found the right match. We don’t believe people when they say they’re just fine on their own. Singles endure all kinds of quiet prejudice and discrimination.
And yet the fact is that going solo, whether by choice or just because of the realities of life, has become a norm, not a rarity.
There’s a song about a woman who feels that she has been abandoned. The song is called “Landslide” and it’s by Stevie Nicks. She’s all by herself. How is she going to do it? She’s on her own.
And that rolling stone that Dylan was talking about looks like it is about to cause a landslide in the snow-covered mountain that is her life right now.
She sees her reflection in the snow-covered hills and she sees it all coming down in the landslide.
Can I sail through the changing ocean tides?
Can I handle the seasons of my life?
She says to the lover who has left:
I’ve been afraid of changes
‘Cause I’ve built my life around you
But time makes you bolder
Even children get older
And I’m getting older, too
I’m getting older too
She has built her life around him and now he’s gone and she has to work it out
She has to figure it out
And time will make her bolder
She can do it
She was a child but now the child in her heart has to rise above and figure out what love is
Even children like her, people who have been dependent on others, get older and she is getting older and she is going to understand this different season in her life.
What she is processing, what she is figuring out, is what, when we find ourselves by ourselves,
what she is working out is what, at some point, whether we like it or not, we will each have to work out.
Most of us hope to spend our golden years living actively with loved ones, with a spouse, family, good friends, at least nearby. But life, as we all learn, is unpredictable. Rich or poor, we cannot control our social destiny. Marriage is a strong buffer against the threat of isolation. Yet all aging couples are well aware of the unwelcome fact that they are just a heartbeat away from being separated. And no one struggles more with solitary living than the recently widowed elderly, whose own risk of sickness and death increases significantly immediately after the spouse dies. How many times have I buried two spouses within a very short period of time?
If you are not single, the simple, terrible fact is that if you live, one way or another you will be, and you need to be prepared, you must face that possible future realistically, you must be ready on at least some levels.
Who knows one? Maybe you have never known one. But you must ready to be one.
“Going Solo” is the title of a very interesting book by Eric Klinenberg. He says that society has changed and we have to change our attitude and understand that living by yourself can be a happy and productive and fulfilling lifestyle.
The question, Klinenberg says, is not whether we live alone; the question is whether we feel alone. Living by yourself is one thing. Feeling isolated like you’re on an island is something else.
What’s interesting is that the majority of the single elderly believe that living alone beats every other available option, such as moving in with children. Most Americans place great value on independence; they feel that their sense of integrity and self-respect depends on how independent they feel.
There is a trade-off:
Giving up your own place to move in with family or professional caretakers decreases the risk of loneliness, isolation and the related health hazards, but if it comes at the expense of dignity, many of us feel that it may not be worth the price.
Why is this? Why is this our cultural preference?
In America, we’ve always had this model of a hero who is completely on his own, who needs no one and nothing.
In the 1800’s, America’s religion was Self-reliance as preached by Ralph Waldo Emerson. My father raised me on Henry David Thoreau who built a cabin in the woods near Walden Pond and lived on his own. But my father then discovered that Thoreau lived just a couple of miles from his town of Concord and his mother came over for dinner all the time. The whole experiment lasted less than a couple of years. And so my father taught me that even the most self-reliant among us need people. My father concluded that we love this idea of self-reliance but none of us can do it on our own. We need to find a balance.
So this is where America is now, with more and more of us living alone, with many of us totally alone and lonely, at the very time that the whole idea of what family means has become extremely complicated.
So what do we do now?
We have to change our heads about this kind of life. Our institutions, including our synagogues, have to adjust. And our customs must change.
I want to give what you may think is a trivial example but which I think is emotionally and symbolically important. Think about wedding receptions. If you’re married it’s secure and easy. You sit with your spouse; if you’re not fighting that day, you dance with your spouse, if you’re talking to each other you talk to your spouse.
But where do they sit you if you’re not married? Are you comfortable at that table? Who do you dance with? And then, just when you’re okay, they have this dance where they invite people who’ve been married ten and twenty and thirty years out to the dance floor and you sit there and pretend not to mind.
That anniversary dance is an example of the insensitivity of a society that has to change its mindset about things.
That’s a small example of how we must change. Now let me give you a different example.
As most of you know, we conducted a daring experiment last Pesach. We held a Community Second Seder that was free of charge.
If there was one thing that motivated me, if there was one thing that compelled me to take that chance, it was the picture of a single person sitting at a table at home, by him or herself, eating matzah, remembering other Passovers when he or she sat at a crowded table.
I am saying that being single is a growing reality of our world. But there are times when one is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do, and Pesach certainly is one of those times. The community has to do things that families used to do.
Some of the people I respect most around here thought that this idea of a free Seder was a mistake. After all, if people are getting a seven-course meal; shouldn’t they pay something? But I was willing to take the risk that people would get it. I wanted a moment, one moment when we said: No money, no quid pro quo. Just a Jewish community being together on our favorite holiday.
And that night, we saw what happened. So many people came that the fire marshal literally had to stay the whole night and monitor the situation. The community was galvanized in the best possible way. That night, echad ani yodea, I knew what oneness could mean for a community.
And just for the record, a lot of people got the point, and they responded voluntarily. Not only did this very expensive project pay for itself, but we were even able to put money away towards next year’s Seder.
In an era when so many are unaffiliated with any Jewish institution, we have to do things like this, taking risks in order to reach out. The Community Seder is an example of what we must learn how to do. We will have more Friday night Shabbat dinners and we hope that you come. Again, a community dinner should be seen as a dinner for each of us, no matter whether we’re coming with someone or not.
I believe that the synagogue must help people not just with their spiritual needs but also with their very personal concrete needs. If being single is such a part of things, we have to be prepared, we have to learn how to be self-sufficient. For all of the people who love us and help us, like Billie Holliday sang, G-d bless the child that’s got its own; its own means, its own money, its own ability to function by him or herself.
I talk to people all the time who find themselves by themselves and they are terrified of messing up their financial affairs and/or of starving to death because they have never cooked for themselves. And so I want to announce two lectures, Cooking 101 and Finances 101. Each person must develop skill sets and knowledge in basic areas. If we are going to have to be independent, we must know how to manage on our own. Every person, no matter where you are in life, should know how to cook. And that means cooking breakfast, lunch and dinner. I don’t mean to be gender-specific, but guys, you should know your way around a kitchen. And each of us must know everything about his or her finances. So these lectures will teach how to manage meals and manage our money. As a synagogue, as a community, we have to fight quiet discrimination and create opportunities to make all of us stronger and more self-reliant.
But we do need help. We need our families and our friends and our community. And we need Someone Else. In the song from the Haggadah that I’ve been quoting, Echad mee yodeah, Who Knows One? the answer is G-d, Who is One.
There is an answer to feeling the aloneness of being one. G-d is the answer to being one.
Just about every day, someone will say to me, “Rabbi, I don’t know how you deal with all of the things you have to do and see.”
The truth is that prayer really helps. Every day, prayer gives me the ability to find the strength to deal with my griefs, my tensions, my disappointments but also to temper my excitement and my tendency to go over the top, to get carried away in the happy times.
I’m never one by myself, alone, because I feel close to G-d, Who, in a sense, helps me to be the elevator operator of my own emotions, bringing me up from the basement of despair, and down from the penthouse of too much exuberance.
Since I’m a rabbi, you would expect me to say that the Siddur, the prayer book gives me this help. But the words I sing or say from the prayer book are just a mechanism to get closer to G-d. I hope that more of you will find the perspective that I find in regular prayer.
But I know that this is foreign to many of you. A lot of you are very spiritual people who do not connect their feelings to Jewish modes of prayer. You understand the Mourner’s Kaddish when you lose a loved one and you understand a mishaberach when you or a loved one is sick. But that’s about it. You want to pray, but your prayers are about something that is going on in your life.
So I have been busy lately collecting Jewish prayers that pertain to specific situations in our lives. Your kid is going away to college, you’re retiring like Schmidt in the movie, you’re fighting depression, anxiety, feeling overwhelmed. A lot of people have called me over the years when a pet died; I have now found a Jewish prayer for this. I now have a collection of prayers for different real-life situations that we find ourselves in. And I invite you to call or email me, very confidentially, and ask me for one or more of these prayers, that you may use to get you closer to G-d.
You have been hiding from G-d. But He is seeking you. Why do you keep hiding from Him? You think that no one seeks you. You’re wrong.
Echad Mi Yodea? Echad Anee Yodea.
Who knows one? I know one.
One is the oneness we can feel with G-d.
One is the oneness we can feel within ourselves.
One is the oneness we can feel with our community,
In the coming year, may we, as individuals and as a synagogue, learn what to do with the most important number of all.