The Epidemic No One Talks About
lonely adjective lone·ly | \ˈlōn-lē \
Definition of lonely
1a: being without company
1b: cut off from others
2: not frequented by human beings
3: sad from being alone
4: producing a feeling of bleakness or desolation
From the Merriam-Webster Dictionary
Loneliness is a an epidemic. Don’t take it from me. The world is slowly recognizing the scope of this social ill, and the great social and economic costs associated with it. The United Kingdom appointed a Minister of Loneliness after studies revealed that about nine million people, or 14% of the population often or always feels lonely. Dr. Vivek Murthy, a former US Surgeon General declared loneliness an epidemic a few years ago, stating that it was a particularly dangerous epidemic because people don’t come to their doctor and disclose that they are suffering from loneliness. For the past ten years there has been a well-attended International Conference on Loneliness, where governments, foundations, and medical professionals come together to devise strategies to combat loneliness.
Loneliness is not only a social problem, there are significant health risks associated with it as well. When an individual feels a persistent feeling of loneliness, the body is constantly living with elevated stress hormones and inflammation. This puts people at increased risk of heart disease, arthritis, Type 2 diabetes, dementia and suicide attempts. Other studies show evidence that loneliness causes disrupted sleep, abnormal immune responses, and accelerated cognitive decline.
When we think of loneliness, we tend to think of elderly people living alone, but surprisingly the populations that reports the highest levels of loneliness are those ages 16-24, times in life when people are surrounded by others. Feelings of loneliness peak in adolescent years, dropping off from 25-65 when they start to rise sharply again.
There is a significant difference between social isolation and loneliness. Social isolation is an objective measure of how many interactions one has with others. Loneliness is a subjective feeling of not being worthy of other’s love and has no correlation with the number of social interactions one has with others. There are people living out in the prairie who rarely see others, but don’t feel lonely at all, and there are people who interact with others eighteen hours a day between work and social media, yet feel intensely lonely.
Loneliness is also expensive. A report by AARP and Medicare from November of 2017 estimated that the US government spends $6.7 Billion a year in costs related to people suffering from loneliness. In a study in the UK, 75% of doctors reported that between one and five patients come to their office daily whose main ailment is loneliness. Loneliness is one of the factors associated with the rise of drugs in the US, and while there are other factors in the drug abuse epidemic, it is an epidemic that costs the country about $740 billion a year. You would expect to see the US expending significant resources to combat a scourge that exacts such a high toll on our nation’s health and wealth, but unfortunately that is not the case right now.
Maybe it’s best this way, the government is usually not great at tackling social problems, that is where society should be doing its job. So what are we doing? We have community centers where elderly people can come together for workout classes, subsidized meals, and other recreational activities. There are other communal buildings with activities for the elderly, such as libraries, synagogues, or churches. But what about the people who have mobility challenges, such as the frail elderly or the clinically depressed? They are usually the people most likely to experience loneliness but also the people least likely to get out and access the places and activities that would alleviate those feelings.
I’d like to propose an idea, and I give full permission to anyone to implement it, or make it better. We can create One-Call-A-Day groups where anyone can call up and ask to either be a One-Call-A-Day caller or One-Call-A-Day call recipient or both. The people who commit to calling would commit to calling one person, once a day, for a five minute conversation, checking in on the recipient. Their job would be to be a friendly non-judgmental voice that will simply ask the recipient how they are doing. People who are feeling lonely can request to get a One-Call-A-Day call, and can expect to hear a friendly caring voice once a day.
Ideally the angels who coordinate the calls will use their best judgment to pair up people in similar life situations, so a female high school junior might get paired up with a female high school senior, and a 77-year-old man would get paired up with a man aged between 65-85. They would also prepare a short brochure outlining what these calls should sound like. There should never be any judgments pronounced, no unsolicited advice given, just a human being who wants to hear how another human being is doing, and who will express sympathy for any pain they describe.
This is something that would not only benefit the recipient of the calls, it would provide tremendous value to the callers as well. A study published in Psychology Today indicates that doing random acts of kindness increases the well being of the doer. Ask anyone who volunteers to visit the sick or deliver meals to the homebound and they will tell you how meaningful it is to them, and how it changed their lives for the better.
In the book of Genesis, Ha-shem tells Avraham of the blessings he will get if he takes the Lech Lecha journey and leaves his birthplace and family behind in Charan to travel to the Holy Land. Ha-shem says (Genesis 12:2), “And I will make you into a great nation, I will bless you, and make your name great and you will be a blessing.” Rashi quotes the Medrash that says that when G-d said “I will make you into a great nation” it was a portent that people would eventually pray every day invoking the G-d of Avraham. “I will bless you,” was a promise that his son Isaac would be great, and people would pray invoking the G-d of Yitzchak. “I will make your name great,” would be fulfilled when his grandchild would also be righteous and people would eventually pray invoking the G-d of Yaakov.
The Medrash continues to explain the meaning of, “And you will be a blessing.” It says, you might think that people would finish [their prayers] by invoking the G-d of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov? No, you Avraham alone will be the blessing, they will conclude with Magen Avraham, the protector of Avraham. Indeed, in the first prayer in the Shmona Esrei, the silent devotion, we say “G-d of Avraham, G-d of Yitzchak, and G-d of Yaakov…” but when we conclude the blessing, we only say “Protector of Avraham,” without mentioning Yitzchak and Yaakov.
One of my rabbis asked the following; what kind of promise is this to Avraham, we all want our children to be better than us, so why would Avraham not want his child and grandchild included in the end of the blessing? Rather, he explained, that the conclusion is not referring only to the end of the blessing, it was referring to the conclusion of the exile. It was a prophecy that at the conclusion of our long and bitter exile, we would all go through a challenge that required the specific strengths of Avraham to overcome. What was Avraham’s unique strength? That he was able to push forward doing the right thing even though he was all by himself. Everyone in the world was preaching idolatry, and he was preaching monotheism. This made him an outcast, the “Ivri” the only one standing alone on the other side of a vast gully.
Avraham was being told that at the end of time, we would live in an era that despite being surrounded by millions of people, despite having more connectivity than ever before, people would feel so alone, each person at times would feel that they were the only person on their side, that no one else understands them fully, that they are existentially alone. And in that time they will pray to the Magen Avraham, the G-d that protected Avraham and gave him strength to keep going on despite being so alone. Indeed, that is our world today, a world where we can have 2,500 “friends” and yet feel so existentially alone.
We obviously should pray to G-d to help us when we feel alone, but we should also do what we can to reach out and relieve others of their loneliness. Whether by setting up a One-Call-A-Day group, or just by doing it ourselves, calling people to check in on them. We can partner with G-d in helping people feel valued and essential. We can make sure everyone in our community knows that he or she is loved. We can start reversing the epidemic of loneliness, one phone call at a time.
Parsha Dvar Torah
“And his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, so they hated him, and they could not speak with him (l’shalom) peacefully.” (Genesis 37:4)
In this week’s parsha, we read about the rift between Joseph and his brothers – one that not only led to Joseph being sold into slavery, but also to the eventual formation of the Jewish people in Egypt. As the rift gathered steam, the Torah notes us that the brothers couldn’t speak peacefully with Joseph. Rashi comments, “From what is stated to their (the brothers) discredit, we may learn something to their credit, that they did not say one thing with their mouth and think differently in their heart.”
Rashi gives the brothers credit for not pretending to be friendly with Joseph while secretly hating him, but still considers their not speaking with him to be a discredit. Rabbi Yonason Eybeschutz (1690-1764, Krakow-Altona) explains why it was wrong for them not to speak to him given the fact that they hated him. It is human nature, he explains, for dislike of another person to grow with the passage of time. Without any intervening positive interactions, “dislike” commonly evolves into full-blown hatred.
This would explain the unfortunately reality of people going to their graves with unresolved family feuds that started out as minor squabbles. Issues that could have been resolved earlier on, somehow became insurmountable mountains. Instead of allowing the issue to fester, the offended person could have said, “You know, I was really hurt by what you said/did/didn’t do. I really wish you wouldn’t have said/done that.” The other party would then have the opportunity to apologize, offer a legitimate explanation, say he wouldn’t do it again, or simply say that he didn’t mean to be offensive. The fight could have ended right there, saving years of bitterness and alienation.
It is possibly for this reason that the Torah prohibition “Do not hate your brother in your heart” is immediately followed with, “You shall surely rebuke your fellow.” (Lev. 19:17). The Torah seems to imply that if one hates his brother in his heart, he is setting himself up for an eternity of enmity. If you don’t hold the anger in your heart and respectfully rebuke the person, the situation could be resolved without lingering hatred.
This, according to Rabbi Eybeschutz, is the discredit referred to by Rashi regarding Joseph’s brothers. When the Torah testifies that, “ and they could not speak with him peacefully,” it is in effect saying that if they would have spoken to him, even openly telling him what bothered them, it could have been l’shalom, for peace, thus dissolving their enmity. Since they were unwilling to engage Joseph in any sort of dialogue, they ended up increasing their hatred towards him, and eventually sold him into slavery.
After arriving from Europe, one of the preeminent leaders of American Jewry, Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky (1891-1986), served as a congregational Rabbi in various communities, including a stint in Toronto. While there, the extremely grateful congregation presented him with a beautiful silver Kiddush cup as a gift. Shortly thereafter, a congregant happened to see him bringing the silver cup to a pawn shop! When the membership learned of this, they were understandably distressed. How insulting was it for him to sell the congregation’s gift!
A congregant was designated to approach the Rabbi to express their displeasure. To his pleasant surprise, Rabbi Kamenetsky explained that he was having the cup assessed to find how much tax he owed for it. As the gift was given in recognition of his service, he considered it taxable income. In addition to the impressive testimony this provides regarding Rabbi Kamenentsky’s integrity, it also shows us the importance of talking things out, and how much resentment and hurt can be avoided if we would simply talk “l’shalom,” for the sake of peace.
This week’s Parsha sort of breaks new ground by beginning to discuss in depth the lives of people other than the patriarchs. Now we start to talk about the lives of their children, the Twelve Tribes. This week’s Parsha begins with the tense relationship between Yosef and his siblings. He felt they were doing certain things wrong, and told his father about it. The brothers became angry with him. Then he had two dreams, the gist of which were that all the brothers were bowing down to him, and these dreams further infuriated the brothers as they felt he was trying to force his rule over them.
One time when Yosef was sent to check on them, while they were tending sheep in Shechem, they made an ad hoc court and condemned him to death for what they felt were serious crimes. Reuven persuaded them out of it, convincing them to throw him into a pit instead. Reuven’s plans was to come back and get Yosef out, but while Reuven went back to serve his father, Yehuda convinced the brothers to sell Yosef to a passing caravan of Ismaelites. Yosef was traded from one group to the next until eventually he was bought by Potiphar, the Chamberlain of Pharaoh.
The brothers brought back Yosef’s tunic to their father covered in blood, which made Yaakov believe that his son was killed by a wild animal. He was deeply grieved and no one was able to properly console him. At this point, Yehuda fell out of favor in the eyes of his brothers for his role in the sale of Yosef, so he moves away from them. In his new land, he marries and builds a family. Through an interesting twist of events, Yehuda ends up living with someone, who he thought was someone else, and one of the resulting offspring ends up being the ancestor of King David and by definition, Moshiach.
In the meantime, Yosef runs into some trouble at his new workplace. He is enormously successful as a servant and soon Potiphar’s house is being run by Yosef. However Potiphar’s wife was attracted to Yosef who was very beautiful and she tried daily to seduce him. Finally one day when everyone was at a pagan festival she came home and tried to force herself onto him. He ran out leaving his coat in her hands. She made a big stink claiming that it was Yosef who tried to force himself onto her, and Yosef gets thrown into jail.
Even in jail he wass very successful and soon he was in charge of the whole jail. One day he notices two of his fellow inmates, the royal butler and baker look depressed. He asked them what was wrong and they said that they had dreams they couldn’t interpret. Yosef interprets them both properly. The Parsha concludes with Yosef asking the butler to remind Pharaoh about his, and to get him out of jail, however the butler totally forget Yosef for two years! That’s all Folks!
Quote of the week: If you want to be found, stand where the seeker seeks. ~ Sidney Lanier
Random Fact of the Week: The number of left handed men is double the number of left handed women.
Funny Line of the Week: Don’t sweat the petty things and don’t pet the sweaty things.
Have a Gorgeous Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham