I loved being alone when I was younger. Maybe it was growing up as the youngest of four in a relatively loud household, but once I was old enough to stay at home, it was always my preferred option. There was something about that solitude that spoke to me. It gave me the space to think, play, or importantly have full control over the Nintendo.
That’s the thing about solitude. It gives us a choice. When we hear the word loneliness, we have certain negative associations. Lord knows how many articles have been penned recently about the plague of loneliness in our culture. They have their place because loneliness is a challenge. But being alone is different than loneliness, at least for the purposes of this piece.
This piece is focused on Jacob’s being left alone. As Jacob is preparing to see his brother for the first time in years, we read the following in Genesis 32:25:
Jacob was left alone and a figure wrestled with him until the break of down.
Why does the text need to mention Jacob being alone? It could’ve gone right into his wrestling match. That piques the interest of a multitude of commentators. Two of them, from the Chasidic realm see this alone-ness as providing two different pathways.
The Shem Mishmuel sees this aloneness through the lens of Shabbat and weekdays. During the week, we cleave to all sorts of material things and relationships in the physical realm. On Shabbat, we find ourselves unmediated and alone. In that place, we are supposed to sever our connections with anything physical and cling to divinity. We should enter into a world that is solely spiritual. In other words, when you find yourself alone, go inward, not outward.
We’ll call this option 1.
Option 2 comes from the Degel Machane Ephraim, a favorite of this Substack. He first relays the teaching of the Talmud that every person should remind themselves that the whole world was created for them. So:
When they find themselves in a place of being alone, a person thinks that the entire world was created for their sake, the entire foundation of the world depends upon them. If they improve their deeds the world continues to exist. If not…
A bit intense to be sure but I found the point powerful. Especially when you find yourself alone, remember that you have a responsibility to the world still. Even though you can’t see or feel those around you, they’re still there, and you’re still here.
Therein lies the rub with being alone. You have a choice when you’re there. Do you see the void and decide you don’t want anything to do with the larger world and you just want to focus on yourself, as the Shem Mishmuel suggests? Or do you double down on what it means to be an individual among the collective like the Degel Machane Ephraim posits? In the former, you can serve yourself alone. In the latter, you can serve yourself through partnership with others.
I see the option 2 as a great antidote to the overwhelming feeling of being alone. When Jacob opened himself up to his being alone, it wasn’t all that easy. He fought with a divine being. It wasn’t a sure thing that he would come out on top. But he did ultimately. And through that encounter, he came out with a new identity, a fresh perspective on life, and a sense of confidence in anticipation of his fraught reunion with his brother.
That to me sounds like good proof that the Degel Machane Ephraim’s offering might be the preferred path, or at least the one we should take more often. Is it harder? Undoubtedly. Is it a certainty that we’ll succeed? Probably not. But is the potential for something great to come out of it that much higher? Absolutely.
I love being alone still, even if my opportunities for it are slim with a one year old and a dog. That same feeling of autonomy is present. So seek out that act of being alone. Embrace it when it comes. Remember that we each have a responsibility to activate from our being alone-ness to find our people and connect.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Weekend