To be alone

It took my divorce to understand fully all of those sermons that I had preached over the years about caring for the orphan, the widowed, the poor, the stranger

With approximately half of American marriages ending in divorce, the social crisis unfolding within the American Family Institution concerned me deeply as a congregational rabbi during the 1980s and ’90s, my first two decades in the pulpit. I spoke about it. I wrote about it.

And then I experienced it.

Life suddenly takes on a fascinating aspect when theory steps aside to make place for reality. In theory, for example, we love the Jewish People. In reality, however, do we love the Jew next door? I learned this during my seventeen months between marriages.

During that year and a half, I learned how lonely Sabbath can be as a Single. As an Orthodox Jew, my Sabbath does not include traveling by car, watching TV, shopping for stuff, or blogging. Rather, my Sabbath is a Day of Rest celebrated within the conceptual framework circumscribed by the Written and Oral laws of the Torah, found in the Chumash and Talmud.

When you are married, an Orthodox Sabbath is wonderful. It can be even sweeter with kids growing up at home. The wonderfully long and festive Friday night dinners. Adorning the table with fine china, crystal, and silver. You talk about your week and learn about everyone else’s. You discuss the Torah portion, maybe even argue ideas stemming from it. The kids share their drawings of Abraham and Sarah, challah and candlesticks. As they get older, they engage the discussions, too. As the meal starts winding down, we sing the special Sabbath table songs. Afterwards, we relax. Maybe we study Torah. Maybe we read books. Maybe we get on the floor and have a rematch of last week’s “Scrabble” game or “Apples to Apples.”

On Sabbath morning, we walk to shul. Few memories in a lifetime are as sweet as the parent’s twenty-minute walk to shul with his or her child every Sabbath morning. The day is spent with family, with friends. More Torah discussion and learning, more singing and relaxing. Another “Scrabble” rematch.

It took my divorce to teach me that Sabbath, for a Single, can get very, very lonely. You eat by yourself, sing to yourself, play “Scrabble” with yourself. It took my divorce to understand fully all those sermons I had preached over the years about caring for the orphan, the widowed, the poor, the stranger. The contemporary addition: the unmarried adult.

In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Seitzei (Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19), we read: “Do not pervert the justice due a convert and an orphan, and do not take the garment of a widow wrongly as a pledge for a loan. And remember that you were a slave in Egypt . . . .” (Deut. 24:17-18) Moreover, when you reap your agricultural harvest, leave behind the bundle that you forget, the gleanings that you drop, a corner of your field, some olives on the tree, some grapes on the vine – leave that for the convert, the orphan, and the widow because you were a slave in Egypt. (See, e.g., verses 19-22.)

What does my slavery in Egypt have to do with someone else being a convert, an orphan, or a widow? It is a personalized, raw and grating reminder of what it feels like to be out of normative social status. Sure, everyone “felt” for the widow and orphan, while “admiring” the convert. But feelings and admiration do not sate an appetite or provide shelter from the storm. So the Torah reminds us: You know how it feels. You personally experienced social helplessness and abandonment. You know what it feels like not to be rooted in the same garden where everyone else is planted. Just think back to the days when you were a slave, and you will know what to do.

I often challenge my rabbinic colleagues — not all — for failing adequately to sensitize our communities to the needs and social status of the unmarried. Some feel that Singles are not worth the time because, at best, they pay only half a family membership, and they probably will leave the temple anyway if they do marry. Besides, they have JDate and Frumster, and there are “matchmakers.” It almost sounds like a bad parody of Ebenezer Scrooge waving off those soliciting alms for the needy: Are there no poor houses?

Are there no “matchmakers”? Are there no websites? Are there no Singles Mixers?

If you know someone unmarried, bring that person into your Sabbath home. Invite him or her regularly to Sabbath meals. Arrange with others in your temple to assure that Singles get to meet others, that the widowed and the divorced enjoy the warmth of the Shabbat home. For this — and only this — one issue, become a busybody and ask friends whether they know someone who could be a good match. Not a “matchmakers”? You are hereby deputized.

In my day, two married women saw me through my dark period. Lilli Kahn-Rose made sure that I never had Sabbath meals alone, and Linda Scharlin matched me with the love of my life, Ellen. Ten years later, I have never forgotten what they did. That is how much this mitzvah means: Remember the orphaned, the widowed, the stranger — and the unmarried. Because you once were single and alone, too.