Friday, December 8, 2017


As I get older (I am 79 now), I realize that even though most of us are surrounded by family and friends, we are alone in our suffering. Here, I am not talking about depression or other psychological illnesses, but simply facing physical challenges in the midst of a caring community. No matter how loving they may be, my wife or children cannot take away my headache or kidney pain.  I have to deal with it, alone and by myself, using my own resources. 

There is a dramatic episode in the Hebrew Bible describing the loneliness of our patriarch Jacob. According to the story, after leaving Laban, his father in-law, Jacob took his wife and other relatives, and went West to meet his brother, Esau. He was between a rock and a hard place: he did not like his father-in-law and was afraid of his brother. When he reached the ford of the Jabbok, a tributary of the Jordan river, he took them all across the stream, but he remained behind. At that point, the text tells us: “Jacob was left alone,” (Gen. 32: 25). There, he was viciously attacked by a mysterious god-like individual. Commentators try to figure out who this person was. Some argue that he was an angel (Hos.12:4); others say he represents his conscience (G. von Rad). In reality, for me, his loneliness is emblematic of the human condition. Even though you are surrounded by family and friends, you need to face your existential and physical challenges all alone and by yourself. 

In my naturalistic religious philosophy, I do not equate suffering with punishment. I do not believe God is there to inflict pain on us when we do something wrong. God, for me, is the energy of the universe, the source of all existence. And we, like all living creatures, are formed with various physical capabilities but also with numerous limitations, having come into being, as the Bible states, “from dust to dust” (Gen. 3:19). 

I also recognize that being lonely is not the same as being alone. I enjoy being with people, but, once in a while, I prefer to be alone, to do my own thing. I agree with Thomas Wolfe, when he states in his essay, “God’s Lonely Man,” that ultimately “loneliness…is the central and inevitable fact of human existence,”, and we need to learn how to deal with it. 

Human beings are social creatures. We come into the world against our wishes, and, as we grow older, we seek people like us, and finally depart this world by ourselves, often, unwillingly. The Bible recognizes this characteristic, when, at the dawn of history, it states, “it is not good for a human to be alone” (Gen.2: 18). We need to find human connections who will stand by us in good times and bad. Not that they will be able to take away our pain, but just to let us know that they care for us. It is in that spirit that the ancient Rabbis taught that visiting the sick removes 1/60th of one's suffering (Ned. 39b).

In the Book of Job, the main character Job suffers tremendously, “from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head” (2:7), but his friends did not leave him alone. They cared for him. They were aware that they could not take away his psychical pains, but, in an act of charity, “They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights. None spoke a word to him, for they saw how great was his suffering.” (2:13). In life, that is all we can expect from loved ones, and that is what we should do for others we care. Just be with them. 

Fortunate are those who have this kind of support and love.

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.

Dec. 2017

PS. To clarify, I am in no pain now. I am arguing a psychological/philosophical issue.