The Talmud tells the story of a man called Honi the
Circle-Maker, a Jewish Rip Van Winkle, who went out for a walk, sat down to rest, and fell asleep for 70 years. When he awoke and returned to his village, no one recognized him. Separated from his former companions, he died of loneliness, at which point the Talmud comments: “O chevruta o mituta; either friendship or death!”
Almost 2,000 years later, we have the science to back up what the rabbis intuitively knew about the life-giving nature of companionship and friendship. Loneliness is literally as powerful an indicator of premature death from heart disease as other factors like diet & exercise.1 People who define themselves as lonely or feeling socially isolated appears to increase the risk of having a heart attack, angina, or of eventually dying of heart disease, by 29%. The risk of stroke increases by 32%, almost a full third.
In an age of unprecedented connectivity, making accumulating Facebook friends and followers as simple as touching a screen, one might think our loneliness would be heading the way of the Dodo bird. However, studies show that people who spend more than 3 hours on social media and cell phones, ironically feel 30% more depressed. Four or more hours on our cell phones also decreases our empathy for others by 40%. This gives a whole new meaning to the saying, “With friends like that, who needs enemies.”
That reminds me of another story the sages of old tell about a young student who wanted to know what heaven and hell were like. An angel acceded to her request, and brought her first to hell. The first thing she noticed was the food: banquet tables were laden with every possible delicacy and steaming platters of food - and delectable aromas wafted through the halls. But then she noticed the people. They were glum and bitter and miserable.
And then she understood why: large wooden spoons were strapped onto everyone’s arms, past the elbow, so that they couldn’t bend their arms to put any food into their mouths. When the student arrived at the entrance to heaven, she was taken aback. The scene was identical: the same banquet tables, the same delicacies and steaming platters – and the same large wooden spoons strapped onto everyone’s arms. However, the scene was not glum. There was singing and talking and laughter because people figured out they could feed each other.
The moral of this story is, of course, going it alone is hell. Our heart’s true happiness is found in the ways we help our fellows flourish. We can’t do it alone. Ecclesiastes wisely observed, “Two are better than one. For should one fall, one can raise the other. But woe to him who falls with no one to raise him up.”
The rabbis taught that the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed on the 9th of Av 1949 years ago this month because of a persistent enmity that grew between friends, giving new meaning to the adage chevruta or mituta, friendship or death. The Chasidic master Rabbi Mordechai of Lechovitz taught: "Friendship is like a stone. A stone has no value, but when you rub two stones together properly, sparks of fire emerge." Think about someone whom you consider to be a very special friend. In what ways has that friend helped you to become a better person? In what ways have you helped your friend to grow? How will you show your gratitude to that person?
1These findings were published in the scientific journal "Heart", the official journal of the British Cardiovascular Society, 2016.
Previous messages from the Rabbi
“If you stop doing hard things,” she said, “you’ll stop being able to do hard things.” That was what my health instructor said during class a couple of weeks ago. She was lamenting how her mother, who used to be on her feet all the time while she was working, had retired, joined the YMCA … Continue reading Between You and Me
Carpet Story A story from Iran: When a certain Muslim had been swindled by a Jew in business, the angered party went to the regional governor and prevailed upon him to issue an official edict requiring the conversion of every Jew by a certain date, upon pain of death. As the deadline approached, the Jewish … Continue reading Between You and Me – May 2019
The Hagaddah does a great job telling the story of the Israelite’s enslavement at the hands of the mighty Pharaoh. How with an outstretched arm and with signs and wonders, God redeemed us from captivity. Many of us will reflect at our Seder tables about those who are victims of tyranny today at the hand … Continue reading Between You and Me – April 2019
There is a folk legend that King Solomon, the wisest person ever to have lived, once posed the following riddle: What can you say to a happy man to make him sad, that will also make a sad man happy?” Solomon took a gold ring from his pocket upon which were engraved three Hebrew letters: … Continue reading Between You and Me- March 2019
A foundation of spiritual practice is the truth that we can hold two opposing feelings all at once. We can feel joyful as we grieve, we can experience hope in our despair, we can be certain in our uncertainty and, if we are wise, always be uncertain in our certainty. The weeks leading up to, … Continue reading Between You and Me – February 2019
An appeal to fellow Americans following the Pittsburgh Shootings The deadly attack on the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh on October 27, 2018 was by far the worst anti-Semitic incident in our nation’s history. But it was hardly the only one. According to the Anti-Defamation League, the number of reported anti-Semitic hate crimes rose … Continue reading Between You and Me – January 2019
Light the lights…but replace them with LEDs! Hunkering down for the dark, cold winter, our ancestors knew we needed to add light and warmth to our lives. Today, light and heat come to us at a high cost – in dollars and in impact on the world. I invite you to consider these easy ways … Continue reading Between You and Me – December 2018
…we cannot reach any higher if we can’t deal with ordinary love. -Bono I read a lot of high holiday sermons…other people’s. It’s nice to see what other rabbis choose to speak about when so many are present and listening. This year, I also read a flurry of news articles on the subject of whether … Continue reading Between You and Me – November 2018
This month, I was late in turning in my Menorah article. After the volume of writing and thinking I was engaged in to prepare for the High Holidays, I just kept putting it off. I’ve even procrastinated on adding procrastination to the list of qualities I must address in myself this new year. In their … Continue reading Between You and Me – October 2018
Rabbi’s Highlights of the 2018 CBHT Trip to Israel Thursday June 21, 2018: Meditating at 6:30 AM on our first morning on the Tel Aviv beach for 23 minutes with Asa Harris who said afterwards, “Meditation is like yoga, except without moving!” In that moment I know I’m in for a treat with this group … Continue reading Between You and Me – September 2018
You may remember the NPR audio series called This I Believe that aired a decade ago. They were short, personal essays written by various guests about a core conviction borne from an impactful life experience. I will never forget one called, “Always Go to the Funeral.” In it, the author recalled how her father insisted … Continue reading Between You and Me