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The Epidemic of Loneliness and the Cure: Making People Feel At Home In the World©

First Day of Rosh Hashanah Sermon - September 26, 2022/1st of Tishrei 5783

Once upon a time, there were three guys stuck on a deserted island - let’s call them Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to make it easier. One day, they were having a conversation: what do you miss the most about home?

Abe says: “That’s easy: I miss my beautiful daughter who turned one just before I left home. Before I left she said her first word and it was Abba! I miss her more than anything.”

Isaac says: "I miss my wife’s cooking - she makes the best challah, the best meatballs. There’s nothing like Shabbat in our home - I’m getting hungry just thinking about it.”

Jacob says: “I miss all my tech. I just bought a top of the line 80 inch flat screen TV with surround sound; it takes up an entire wall of my apartment. I live alone so I can watch everything as loud as I want! If only I could only log on to Facebook or Twitter for just five minutes.”

There wasn’t much to do on the island, so they started digging holes in the ground - maybe a pirate buried something here? Sure enough, they find a treasure chest. They open it up, and they find it full of gold and jewels, which, would be amazing, if they weren’t stuck on a deserted island. Then, Abe finds a lamp with an inscription that he can’t quite read - he rubs it and a genie comes out of the lamp.

The genie looks at Abe and says, “Master, whatever your hearts desire, ask and it shall be granted.”

Abe, remembering the conversation they had about what they missed immediately said, "I only want one wish - take me back to my beautiful daughter!” Poof, he was gone, and the genie went back into the lamp. Isaac picks up the lamp immediately, rubs it, and the genie comes out.

“Master, whatever your hearts desire, ask and it shall be granted.”

Isaac says, “I too only want one wish - to be back at my dining room table with a Shabbat meal prepared for me by my loving wife.” Poof, he was gone, and the genie went back into the bottle.

Jacob picks up the bottle, but he doesn’t rub it. He had a weird feeling, he didn’t want to leave the deserted island. He felt differently here, actually a lot happier despite not having any of his high-tech devices, but he couldn’t figure out why. Now with Abe and Isaac gone, he felt the same way he did at home, alone.

So he picks up the lamp and rubs it, and the genie comes out: “Oh, there’s three of you? Master, tell me what your heart desires,” and Jacob blurts out: "I'm lonely. I wish my friends were back here.”

Your wish is my command - poof - Abe and Isaac were back on the island, and the genie went back into the bottle.

For the last two and a half years, we have been fixated on the Covid-19 pandemic, and rightfully so as we have lost over one million Americans to the virus. During the pandemic, we spoke a lot about social distancing, staying physically apart from each other, to avoid spreading the virus.

The truth is, we’ve been social distancing for a while now. The pandemic was preceded by another epidemic: the epidemic of loneliness.

I know what you may be thinking: rabbi, there are so many important issues to discuss - and you’re talking about loneliness?!?

Today is Rosh Hashanah, Yom Harat HaOlam - the day the world was created. It is on this day that we return to Eden, and when we return, we read the following, one of the first things that God says to the first human Adam: לֹא־טוֹב הֱיוֹת הָאָדָם לְבַדּוֹ “It is not good for man to be alone (Genesis 2:18). Thanks to research, we know why it’s not good for humans to be alone.

It’s not just ‘not' good for us to be alone, it’s also dangerous. Here’s an alarming figure: the impact of lacking social connection on reducing life span is equal to the risk of smoking fifteen cigarettes a day, and it’s greater than the risk associated with obesity, excess alcohol consumption, and lack of exercise.

Dr. Vivek Murthy, the Surgeon General of the United States, went on a country wide tour before his tenure as Surgeon General in order to listen to every day Americans and identify the health issues they were dealing with. He spoke to parents, teachers, religious leaders, and community leaders of all kinds in communities in Alabama, North Carolina, California, Indiana - big cities and small towns, and everything in between. He learned about the opioid epidemic, the vaping problem amongst teens, and other issues that grab headlines. But there was something he picked up beneath all the problems: Loneliness.

He writes, “Loneliness ran like a dark thread through many of the more obvious issues that people brought to my attention, like addiction, violence, anxiety, and depression. The teachers and school administrators and many parents I encountered, for example, voiced a growing concern that our children were becoming isolated—even, or perhaps especially, those who spent much of their time in front of their digital devices and on social media.”

But he also found the remedy to the epidemic of loneliness. He writes about it in his book titled: Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World.

It’s a fascinating book that I highly recommend; but what I found through reading it is that the solution to this epidemic can also be found in another book; the Torah!

You might wonder, if loneliness is so bad for us, why are we lonely? The answer is, that loneliness is a disease caused by a mentality:

What’s mine is mine, what’s yours is yours.

I know, it seems almost anti-American to disagree with that statement. America is about liberty and freedom; rugged individuality. As the saying goes: You Do You.

Dr. Murthy writes, “the values that dominate modern culture elevate the narrative of the rugged individualist and the pursuit of self-determination. They tell us that we alone shape our destiny. Could these values be contributing to the undertow of loneliness I was witnessing?”

We weren’t the first country that has become obsessed with the idea of what’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is yours.

This statement comes from the rabbinic work, the Ethics of Our Fathers. I only want to teach the first line though:

אַרְבַּע מִדּוֹת בָּאָדָם. הָאוֹמֵר שֶׁלִּי שֶׁלִּי וְשֶׁלְּךָ שֶׁלָּךְ, זוֹ מִדָּה בֵינוֹנִית. וְיֵשׁ אוֹמְרִים, זוֹ מִדַּת סְדוֹם

There are four kinds of people: the one who says "what is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours" -- that's a “beinonit" another way of saying the normal way people act. But, some say this is the quality of the people in Sodom.”

We learn something interesting here. The rabbis acknowledge that the status quo is keeping to yourself, but they also say it is the quality of the city of Sodom. The sin of Sodom isn’t what we may think it is on a surface level.

The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is found in the book of Genesis. Abraham and three divine messengers go to the city to rescue his nephew Lot when he learns that God will destroy the cities. When the angelic visitors arrive at Lot’s house, and Lot welcomes them in, the people of the town became infuriated. Welcoming strangers into your home was a crime.

In Judaism, welcoming people into our homes is not just a nice thing to do, it's a mitzvah, a sacred obligation. Abraham and Sarah famously had their tent open on all sides to welcome those angels into their home before they reached Sodom. Here is how Abraham greets them:

“My lords, if it pleases you, do not go on past your servant.” He asks if he can wash their feet. He says, "please, let me get a morsel of bread to feed you." The Torah records that he moved fast, that he actually ran.

Let me add some more drama to the story: Abraham, in his 90s, was recovering from an adult circumcision, and it was very hot that day, but that didn’t stop him. Abraham and Sarah feed them and wash their feet. This is the basis for the mitzvah of Hachnasat Orchim, welcoming guests.

Welcoming guests is an act of kindness that we often overlook.

What would it look like for us to act with kindness like Abraham and Sarah in the world?

First, we have to remember the first act of kindness is our very lives. Think about it, what did you do to deserve your life? It is an unearned gift. This is the definition of a word you may have heard of before and never thought was Jewish: grace which we translate as Hesed. Maimonides uses this idea to explain that the whole world is based on grace, quoting the Psalmist who wrote ‘Olam Hesed Yibaneh’ the whole world is built on grace or love. In Judaism, love isn’t a feeling, it’s a commitment, an action to be taken. We often talk about feeling grateful, but to truly be grateful is to reciprocate those gifts to our fellow human. We were given the gift of life, the ultimate act of Hesed, and we repay that gift through our acts of Hesed, acts of kindness.

We discount the small acts of kindness, like welcoming guests, that we experience, but we shouldn’t because even if they are small, they make a big difference.

Hachanasat Orchim, welcoming people into our homes, is one of those minor mitzvoth that really nmatter.

We have the opportunity to bring others back into our homes with a program coming up in November called Shabbat BaBayit. It’s our kick-off to a larger campaign of creating new ‘pods’, like the pods that sustained us during the pandemic. It’s time to bring new people into our lives, and it all begins with a meal, a conversation, and a blessing.

This is a way not just to welcome people into your homes, but to make people feel at home, especially those who have just moved here and are looking for connection.

That kindness does not have to end at our doorways.

A couple of weeks ago, I succumbed to our children’s request for a new basketball hoop. I took all three of them with me to the store, found the big box, and was able to get the box in the cart all by myself. I wheeled the heavy box outside, and I forgot one important thing: I needed to get the box in my trunk. I felt so alone and helpless as my children stared at me struggling to lift this huge box into the trunk.

Out of nowhere, two guys walking by saw my struggles and helped me maneuver the box in the trunk. It was like they were my neighbors!

I asked myself, how many times have I walked by people doing the same thing, not noticing them, and kept walking?

Well, I won’t do that again. Since then, I’ve helped at least two people put heavy objects in their trunks. They look at me strangely at first, as if they are thinking, what’s this guy's angle?!? What does he want?

Small acts of kindness, especially to strangers can change us, and the world.

Pirkei Avot offers a beautiful teaching from Ben Azzai:

בֶּן עַזַּאי אוֹמֵר, הֱוֵי רָץ לְמִצְוָה קַלָּה כְבַחֲמוּרָה, וּבוֹרֵחַ מִן הָעֲבֵרָה. שֶׁמִּצְוָה גּוֹרֶרֶת מִצְוָה, וַעֲבֵרָה גוֹרֶרֶת עֲבֵרָה. שֶׁשְּׂכַר מִצְוָה, מִצְוָה. וּשְׂכַר עֲבֵרָה, עֲבֵרָה:

Ben Azzai said: Be quick in performing a minor commandment as in the case of a major one, and flee from transgression; For one commandment leads to another commandment, and transgression leads to another transgression…

Ben Azzai learned from Abraham - run to do a mitzvah, even if it’s a small one, because that mitzvah can change the world - one mitzvah leads to another, and another.

We can think of home in a broader way, to make people feel at home wherever they are in the world.

Dr. Murthy writes: “Many people described what they were feeling, their loneliness, as a lack of belonging. They’d tried to do things about it. Many had joined social organizations and moved to new neighborhoods. They worked in open-office settings and went to happy hours. But the sense of being “at home” remained elusive. They missed the foundation of home that is genuine connection with other people. To be at home is to be known. It is to be loved for who you are. It is to share a sense of common ground, common interests, pursuits, and values with others who truly care about you. In community after community, I met lonely people who felt homeless even though they had a roof over their heads.”

We make people feel less lonely by making them feel at home. We make them feel at home by acknowledging that they exist, and connecting with them.

In his book, How to Raise An Elegant Teen: The ABC’s of Gen Z Parenting, health educator and motivational speaker, Scott Fried, writes about the three things that teens desperately want:

1. To be listened to by a loving other who can see things inside of them others cannot.

2. To be the most important person at the lunch table, the guest of honor in the world, someone's #1.

3. Proof of their existence, which usually arrives in the form of a Facebook post or other message from a social media platform.

I think these three simple asks go beyond the teenage years.

The greatest gift you can give to someone else is just to acknowledge that they exist - not with a Facebook like, but with a look and a smile.

I’ve told many stories over these past years grandfather Frank who passed away in December. It was one of the honors of my life to share his incredible life with you over the years about his survival through the Holocaust, and the lessons he taught me. One of his favorite lessons was: flash the Baum smile to everyone you meet. Seems simple and light, but this too is a teaching from our tradition. As Shammai said in Pirkei Avot, greet everyone with a smile.

I learned a lot from him, but there was one final lesson he taught me after his death. After he passed, I heard identical reactions from people who met him throughout his life.

“When I came into the room, our eyes would lock, he would smile at me, and call me over to him. I think we had a special connection, I really believe that. He made me feel like I was the most important person in the room. He made me feel special, like I was at home with my father or grandfather.”

Honestly, I didn’t know the impact he had on every person he met until I thought back to my childhood. My friends thought that he was their grandfather, even if they had only one conversation with him.

He loved going to casinos just to watch people play Roulette. I will never forget a young Czech woman who worked at the casino. He smiled at her like he smiled at everyone, he spoke to her in her native tongue which she hadn’t heard in person for over a year, and made her feel less alone. She asked me if she could bring him home to Czechoslovakia with her…and she wasn’t joking.

This happened time and again, and I guess I just thought this was normal, but it wasn’t. It was a simple act that he performed that changed people’s lives.

All of us can choose to do this, if we commit to it and run to it, if we take it on not just as a nice thing to do, but a mitzvah.

Now, I’d like to return to the deserted island with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Did you forget that genies offer three wishes?!?

Abe and Isaac appear back on the island. Abe was mid hug with his daughter, Isaac was still chewing his wife’s famous meatballs. They look at Jacob and ask, “What happened?!? Why are we back here?!?”

Jacob apologized, “I’m really sorry! I just blurted out my wish and then you appeared. But, while you’re here, there was something I never really told you. I used to talk about all the gadgets I owned, that I had 5,000 friends on Facebook and thousands of Twitter followers, but I realized that I didn’t really have any true friends until I met you.”

Abe and Isaac looked into Jacob’s eyes welling with tears and gave him a huge hug. “Jacob, you know, you can come home with us. I mean, we live in the same city! We need you! Jacob, come home with us, meet my daughter, eat at my table - Jacob, you’ll never be lonely again.”

Jacob said, “Thank you, for saving me, and adding life to my years.” And the three friends picked up the lamp, rubbed it one last time, and said, “Genie, take us home.” And so they went.

How many Jacobs are out there on their own self-imposed deserted islands, surrounded by a sea of technology, with digital friends, but no one who can see into their eyes and acknowledge that they matter?

Our congregants here aren’t called members, they are called chaverim. Chaverim are more than friends, they are partners. They travel with us on the windy road of life, through good times and bad. They support us, they hold us when we need to be held, and they let us know that we matter. We have a saying here, ‘you may come to Shaarei Kodesh as a stranger, but you leave as a friend.’ It’s our purpose, it’s why we exist.

Today is a new day, a fresh start - it’s the first day of the year. It’s time we stay healthy and safe as best we can, but a day to leave social distancing that long preceded the pandemic, behind us.

It’s fitting that today, a day for fresh starts, and we are 14 days away from a Jewish holiday that centers itself on making people feel 'at home ' outside of the home, and welcoming sacred guests - Sukkot. We have 14 days to prepare - maybe you can begin today. If you’re having a Rosh Hashanah lunch, and you have some room at the table for a guest, reach out to someone today, and make them feel at home. Or, just talk to someone, and when you ask how they’re doing, give them the opportunity to tell you how they really feel.

Making people feel less alone isn’t just a nice thing to do - it’s a mitzvah. Now’s the time to run to that mitzvah, because you never know how many years you can add to someone’s life by making them feel less alone, and how much life you can add to their years.

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