In 1972, Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again (Naturally)” rose to the top of the charts and occupied that spot for six weeks. It sold two million copies and garnered O’Sullivan three Grammy nominations. It tells the terribly sad tale of a young man left at the marriage altar who contemplates suicide and recounts the deaths of his parents. The common thread is loneliness. As high school kids who could be extraordinarily lonely in a crowded room, this song resonated with my peers. But looking back, I see other layers that I missed back then.
The first layer is in the title itself: The experience of loneliness is “natural.” Torah tells us that the primordial adam (“man”) in the Garden of Eden is alone because he cannot connect with the animals. God recognizes that לֹא-טוֹב הֱיוֹת הָאָדָם לְבַדּוֹ “It is not good for a person to be alone” (Genesis 2:18) and brings forth a mate, Eve. Here, God does not solve the problem of loneliness; rather, Torah recognizes its fundamental, existential nature—we humans suffer recurrent loneliness. We find ourselves, from time to time, or perhaps more frequently, “Alone Again (Naturally).”
Jessica Olien, a writer and illustrator, moved from Portland to Brooklyn. She writes that“parks, bookstores, bars, on dates” where she met plenty of people, she did not feel a connection with any of them. Her innately cheerful demeanor wilted and she became “morose and mildly paranoid…I woke up in the night panicked. In the afternoon loneliness came in waves like a fever.” Mother Teresa once commented: “Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty.”
It is possible to be surrounded by people and feel very much alone. As psychologist Guy Winch has written, “Loneliness is a personal and subjective experience, one which is defined not by the quantity of our relationships but by their subjective quality. Not all lonely people live in isolation. A person might have many friends around them or live with a partner, yet still feel the deep ache of emotional or social isolation.” Is there anyone who hasn’t had this experience?
In Sputnik Sweetheart (by Haruki Murakami), the narrator agonizes: “Why do people have to be this lonely? What's the point of it all? Millions of people in this world, all of them yearning, looking to others to satisfy them, yet isolating themselves. Why? Was the earth put here just to nourish human loneliness?” Is the only answer that it is “natural”?
O’Sullivan’s song recounts the devastating experience of being, literally, “left at the altar”:
Left standing in the lurch at a church
Were people are saying,
“My God, that's tough,
she stood him up.
No point in us remaining.
We may as well go home.”
As I did on my own
Alone again, naturally.
The song paints a terrifying picture: a young man, shattered and distraught, surround by people who recognize his agony but move away from him rather than toward him to offer comfort. Yes, I know these are merely the lyrics to a song from the 1970s, but there is a reason it was such a hit: it speaks a truth many people have experienced. People’s isolation is often compounded by others’ discomfort and unwillingness to step forward.
Short of suicide, loneliness has been shown to affect mortality, and adversely affect our health. Consider this frightening catalogue:
New research links loneliness to a number of dysfunctional immune responses, suggesting that being lonely has the potential to harm overall health.
Researchers found that people who were more lonely showed signs of elevated latent herpes virus reactivation and produced more inflammation-related proteins in response to acute stress than did people who felt more socially connected.
These proteins signal the presence of inflammation, and chronic inflammation is linked to numerous conditions, including coronary heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, arthritis and Alzheimer’s disease, as well as the frailty and functional decline that can accompany aging.
As we open to parshat Terumah this week, the Israelites are bringing donations to Moses to build a Mishkan (Tabernacle) together with its appurtenances and vessels. They recently escaped slavery in Egypt, bringing out only what they could carry on their backs or perhaps tow behind a donkey. Yet Torah enumerates a remarkably elaborate list of materials assembled in the Wilderness to build a Mishkan, a portable home, for God—not at all what you would expect erstwhile slaves to possess:
These are the gifts that you [Moses] shall accept from them [the Israelites]: gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats’ hair; tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood; oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense; lapis lazuli and other stones… (Exodus 25:3-7)
And indeed the Israelites bring so much that Moses must tell them to stop. With these material, construction of the Tabernacle can begin:
As for the tabernacle, make it of ten strips of cloth; make it of ten strips of cloth; make these of fine twisted linen, of blue purple, and crimson yarns, with a design of cherubim worked into them…You shall then make cloths of goats’ hair for a tent over the Tabernacle; make the cloths eleven in number…Make fifty copper clasps, and fit the clasps into the loops [on the edges of the cloth], and fit the clasps into the loops, and couple the tent together so that it becomes one whole…And make for the tent a covering of tanned ram skins, and a covering of dolphin skins above. You shall make the planks for the Tabernacle of acacia wood, upright…Overlay the planks with gold and make their rings of gold, as holders for the bars; and overlay the bars with gold… (Exodus 26:1, 7, 11, 14-15, 29-30)
People often ask: Where did the Israelites get fine linen? tanned rams hides? dolphin skins? a lumberyard of acacia wood? copper, silver, and gold? There are beautiful midrashim to provide answers. But I’d like to ask a different question: My question is: Why does God need a physical residence? The answer, in short, is loneliness. Yes, God is lonely—even God suffers loneliness. How much more so do we?
Our parashah tells us that God initiates the project of the building a Mishkan:
וְעָשׂוּ לִי, מִקְדָּשׁ; וְשָׁכַנְתִּי, בְּתוֹכָם
Let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them. (Exodus 25:8)
Midrash Exodus Rabbah 33:1 answers the question with a beautiful parable. (To fully appreciate the parable, please note that the king is God; his daughter, the bride, is the Torah; and the second king whom the daughter marries is Israel.)
Can you imagine a transaction in which the seller is sold with his own goods?! God, however, said to Israel, “I have sold you My Torah but with it (as it were) I, too, have been sold,” as it says, That they take me for an offering (Exodus 25:1). It can be compared to the only daughter of a king whom another king married. When [the husband-king] wished to return to his country and take his wife with him, [the father-king] said to him: “My daughter, whose hand I have given you, is my only child. I cannot part with her, but neither can I say to you, ‘Do not take her,’ because she is now your wife. One favor, however, I request of you: Wherever you go to live, prepare a chamber for me that I may dwell with you, for I cannot leave my daughter.” Thus God said to Israel, “I have given you a Torah from which I cannot part, and I also cannot tell you not to take it. But this I ask: wherever you go, make for Me a house where I may sojourn,” as it says, Let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them (Exodus 25:8). (Shemot Rabbah 33:1)
God is lonely. Torah has, until this time, been with God, and now that God has given it to Israel, God feels bereft, like a father whose only child marries and leaves home—an image we can understand. This is not the only time the Rabbis speak of the existential problem of loneliness. Given that it is a primordial emotional experience, perhaps we should not be surprised.
This is not God’s sole experience of loneliness. After the Tabernacle was constructed, the Israelites held a 12-day long consecration celebration. Torah tells us that, The one who presented his offering בַּיּוֹם הָרִאשׁוֹן on the first day was Nachshon ben Amminadab of the tribe of Judah (Numbers 7:12). In Midrash Numbers Rabbah, R. Shmuel bar Abba notes that in the story of Creation (Genesis, chapter 1) it does not say “first day” but rather יוֹם אֶחָד “one day.” Why does it not say “first day” in Genesis?
Because while the Holy One blessed be God was alone in the world, God yearned to dwell with his creatures in the terrestrial regions, but did not do so. However, as soon as the Tabernacle was erected and the holy One blessed Be God caused the Shekhinah to dwell in it and the princes came to present their offerings [as described in Numbers, chapter 7], the Holy One blessed be God said, “Let it be written that on this day the world was created.” (B’midbar Rabbah 13:6)
In this version, the Tabernacle was build because God was lonely for all creation, not just for Torah. When it was completed and consecrated, it was for God a new beginning. God has made a profound connection with creation and is no longer separated from it and alone. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, citing this midrash, expands on this idea. God is not merely seeking companionship to ease divine loneliness, but engaged partnership with creation. One can picture God, like Jessica Olien, standing in the middle of Central Park in Manhattan, surrounded by thousands of people, but nonetheless lonely until God can form a meaningful relationship with someone. Herschel wrote:
God is now in need of man, because He freely made him a partner in His enterprise, “a partner in the work of creation.” “From the first day of creation the Holy One, blessed be He, longed to enter into partnership with the terrestrial world” to dwell with His creatures within the terrestrial world… Expounding the verse in Genesis 17:1, the Midrash remarked: “In the view of Rabbi Johanan we need His honor; in the view of Rabbi Simeon ben Lakish He needs our honor.” (Between God and Man, p. 141)
One more example, but this time it is not God who is lonely. Midrash Genesis Rabbah 11:8 speaks of a love affair between Israel and shabbat, comparing them to husband and wife. How does this come about? Because of existential loneliness that is repaired. According to the midrash, God paired off all the days of the week: Sunday and Monday; Tuesday and Wednesday; Thursday and Friday. Only shabbat was left alone—and profoundly lonely. Shabbat came to the Holy One and said: “Sovereign of the universe, all the other days have a mate. Am I to be alone?” God replied, “The community of Israel shall be your mate.” The Kabbalists of Tzfat enlarged upon and re-enacted this image every shabbat, dressing in white as for a wedding, going out into the fields on Friday as the sun set to greet the Sabbath Queen, and escorting her back to their synagogues where they sang her psalms of praise and their own wedding song (Lecha Dodi) and then to their homes, where they re-enacted the consummation of the wedding that night with their wives. The pain of existential loneliness is repaired through love and intimacy.
Yes, the Israelites bring an array of exceptional donations for the construction of the Tabernacle but the real gift (terumah) they bring is themselves. What God longs for is their company and companionship. That is what we all yearn for, what we all need. Most everyone struggles with loneliness at some time or another. For many people it is perennial source of pain. The young man in O’Sullivan’s song even feels deserted by God:
Talk about, God in His mercy.
Oh, if he really does exist,
Why did he desert me?
In my hour of need
I truly am, indeed,
Alone again, naturally.
Would that people could turn to God; and many people do. There are verses from psalms that bring comfort in addition to prayers. I’ve included four selections at the end of this drash.
In Eleanor Rigby, the Beatles poignantly and painfully highlight the elderly among the lonely people who live in our communities (and sometimes next door to us), in particular Eleanor Rigby and Father McKenzie, culminating in these moving and terribly sad lines:
Eleanor Rigby died in the church
and was buried along with her name
Father McKenzie wiping the dirt from his hands
as he walks from the grave
No one was saved
All the lonely people (Ah, look at all the lonely people)
Where do they all come from?
Elderly people are often particularly vulnerable to loneliness and chronic illness, which often go hand-in-hand. They desperately need company, attention, and to feel the human touch. If you are feeling lonely, have you considered reaching out to an elderly neighbor, or visiting someone in a local nursing home, or becoming a Big Brother or Big Sister to a child who desperately needs companionship and guidance? Now there’s a win-win.
Below are resources and psalms that may be of use to you or someone you know.
May we all know the blessings of love and companionship that fill the deep recesses of our souls.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman
This Torah commentary is posted at: , where you can find commentaries for all the weekly Torah portions.