May 27, 2022 |

The Story of Hannah: From Loneliness to Community

Who do you think is the loneliest person you know?

Who do you think is the loneliest person in Jewish history?

In my opinion the answer to that question is Elisha Ben Avuya, also known as Acher (or Other).

The Talmud (Tractate Chagigah 15a) tells us the following story. Elisha Ben Avuya was a great rabbi; one of the greatest of the rabbis of the Talmud. But then he had a dangerous mystical vision of God which led him astray. He envisioned heaven as having a duality—a theological no no--and this affected his belief in the unity of Hashem. And so he became a heretic.

The Talmud says that Elisha heard a heavenly voice declare, “Shuvu banim shovavim chutz mei-acher, Repent my children, repent, except for Acher.” Everyone except for Acher has a chance to repent.

When Elisha heard that the whole world could repent except for him he said, “I might as well live it up in this world.” And so figuring that he has already lost his share in the World to Come, he goes and visits a harlot. When the harlot sees him, she declares, I can not accept your business, for you are the great rabbi, Elisha ben Avuya. But Elisha Ben Avuya wants to prove to the harlot that he is no longer a pious Jew, so he purposely violates the Shabbat in front of her. When she sees this she says, “You are no longer Elisha ben Avuya, from now on you are Acher, Other.”

A basic principle of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is that everyone has the ability to repent. So why is Elisha being denied the opportunity? And why does the harlot call him Acher?

Even though Elisha had renounced his faith and he became a heretic, he still could not leave his past life of piety behind. The Talmud tells us that he would still engage in discussions with his former student, Rabbi Meir. At the same time Elisha clearly felt estranged from God.

He became a heretic, but he still remained with one foot in the world of believers. He couldn’t fit in with anyone. Even the harlot who is a person without an identity and estranged from society, even she did not accept him. This is why the harlot calls him Acher. He did not fit in anywhere in this world. He was an Other.

But ultimately his loneliness came from the fact that he was distant from God. At one point Elisha had been so close to Hashem. He had entered into supremely advanced mystical visions. But then he grew distant from God. He grew apart.

Distance from God is the ultimate loneliness in this world. There can be no greater loneliness than distance from Hashem.

There comes a time in the lives of most people when they wake up and suddenly realize that they are lonely. They might be surrounded by many family members and great friends, but their lives are without direction. They awaken to the fact that they are not alone, but they are incredibly lonely.

It is true that most people have friends and family to turn to. But at the end of the day there is a pervasive loneliness that casts its shadow over human existence.

Rabbi Soloveitchik describes this experience in Worship of the Heart, as the realization that we stand in total isolation in the world.

In his formulation, on the one hand we exist in a natural world—the world of science—which is overwhelming in its greatness. But for many people the greatness of the natural world does not necessarily draw us closer to God as much as it intimidates us. We feel like a paean; a speck in the world, isolated and all alone in a world that appears to run almost mechanically.

So too, he argues, we exist in the world of history. This too serves to further our isolation. The historical world that we recognize does not seem to be bringing us closer to a utopian future. Instead we are just moving farther and farther away from our dreams. We are left to flail helplessly and question the nature of human existence.

This reality is perhaps the main problem that I see in the lives of people who are spiritually floundering. In conversation after conversation with people in my rabbinate, I sense a pervasive sadness in the recognition of many that there is something missing in their lives.

Aristotle taught us that man is a social animal. And I think that is right. We need to move beyond our loneliness in order to exist. So the question I want to explore with you is: How do we move beyond this isolation and loneliness?

The Rosh Hashanah liturgy provides two answers to this question.

In the Haftorah we read the story of Channah as it is told in the Book of Shmuel.

The story of Channah is the story of a woman married to a man named Elkanah. Elkanah has two wives, Channah and Peninah. Peninah has many children, but Channah is childless.

When we first meet Channah she is the definition of a lonely person. We are told le-channah ein yeladim, channah has no children. It is as though her last name is “no children.” She is defined by the absence of a relationship.

She is depressed and bitter and despite the fact that she has a loving husband, she is lonely. She wants no part of the world. Her husband says to her, “Lamah tivki, lamah lo tochli, Why are you crying—why are you not eating—why is your heart bitter?”

But Channah ultimately transcends her loneliness and the way she does so is instructive for us.

She transcends her loneliness through prayer. The Talmud tells us that Channah’s prayer to Hashem is the source of how we should all pray.

The reason is that Channah revolutionized prayer. She prayed to Hashem like we speak to a friend. She spoke to Him directly. She calls Him by his name, Hashem Tzevakot, and before Channah did that no one had ever been able to do that. Hannah pours out herself before Hashem like we would speak only to the closest of our friends—she says “me-rov sichi ve-kaasi dibarti ad heineh, I have spoken to you from a place of great pain.”

Before Channah spoke to Hashem in this manner, no one would have dared to talk to God in that manner, like you speak to a friend. But Channa not only revolutionized HOW to pray, she also revolutionized the concept of prayer.

Through the words of her prayer Channah is able to form a connection, a friendship with Hashem. She pierces through the loneliness and creates an eternal relationship. She didn’t just pray once. She prayed incessantly as the verse says hirbitah le-hitpallel lifnei Hashem, Channah prayed heavily before Hashem.

When we pray to Hashem we are recognizing that we are not alone in this world. This is the power of prayer. It offers us companionship with our Maker; it offers us a path toward ending the loneliness. It creates a community of two—us and God.

This yearning for a real friendship with God is found in the words of psalm 27, which we say morning and evening in the High Holiday season. We say, “achat shealti me-et Hashem, I request only one thing from Hashem, to dwell in his house forever!” And, “Though my father and mother will forsake me, you Hashem will gather me in.”

When we take prayer seriously we have the potential to form a lasting friendship with Hashem. It is a relationship that will end the loneliness and guide us at all times.

So one way to break through loneliness is through the supernatural power of prayer.

The second way to break through our existential loneliness can also be learned from the actions of Channah.

Channah prays to Hashem for a child and when this child is born she dedicates him for service to Hashem. But she doesn’t confine her life to prayer only. She says, “I will now lend my son to Hashem for his whole life, ve-gam anochi hishaltihu la-hashem kol hayamim.”

The path to ending loneliness is to involve oneself in the service of Hashem. In some ways service is different than prayer, but in other ways it is a type of prayer. If prayer is worship of the heart, then service is the worship of the hands and legs.

Service to Hashem can mean filling a task on behalf of a spiritual community or it can mean performing acts of kindness and good deeds on behalf of others.

This second path to ending loneliness begins by helping others. When we help others we will feel a closer friendship with Hashem and will no longer be lonely in this world.

The Hebrew word for repent is teshuvah, which literally means return. The reason that Elisha ben Avahu could not repent is because he was Other, Acher. He could not figure out how to transcend his loneliness. Rather then pray, he went to visit a harlot; rather than serve others he sought to serve himself—to live it up before he died. And so he died a lonely man.

Recently I had an experience which taught me both of these lessons.

Along with Rabbi Avi Weiss and Rabbi Tamara Miller I went to visit with Kiah Johns, the wife of Officer Stephen Johns who was killed defending the Holocaust Museum. We were joined that morning by Kiah’s grandfather and her minister, Pastor McCoy.

We sat in the presence of a grieving widow. Just by looking at her face I could tell how lonely she was. Since the death of Stephen, she had been surrounded by cameras and friends and family. But she was lonely, a young wife without her husband.

I said we are here to offer words of support. And her Pastor said will you recite a prayer, and we all held hands and I did recite a prayer. And we all cried together.

And then she said, “I do not want Stephen to be remembered as only a security guard. That was just a part of him. He was so much more. He was fun and loving. He was joyful and loving. He brought light to so many people.” And so we resolved that we would do an act of service together as a community—bringing our congregation together with his church---in service of Hashem.

And of course, I invited her to come and daven with us sometime as well.

By the end of the meeting, I do not think we took away her pain, but I am hopeful that her loneliness was diminished.

That is what we should all resolve to accomplish in this coming year. We will not share the fate of Elisha ben Avuya. We will not die from loneliness. Starting right now we will pray to Hashem with more fervor and develop a real friendship with Him. And we will dedicate ourselves to the service of Hashem by helping others. And if we do that we will have a real teshuvah this Rosh Hashanah.


Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld

Joined: August 8, 2007

Shmuel is Rabbi of Ohev Sholom -- The National Synagogue, the oldest Orthodox synagogue in Washington, DC. His communal responsibilities include teaching classes, coordinating adult education, creating programs for the elderly,the youth, and the sick, and ministering to the pastoral needs of the...

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