It’s Thanksgiving Day and my house is bursting at the seams – and this isn’t where we’re having dinner. Even with runny noses and upset tummies – and standing in the cold waiting for one of my children to cross the finish line of the Turkey Trot – there is love and warmth everywhere.
That’s not true. Not everywhere. Caren called my office this week to refill her blood pressure medication, and she was in a foul mood. “My family doesn’t want me around for the holidays. This season is really hard for me.” Later that same afternoon, Michael, an anxious man in his early thirties, confided in me that he was trying hard to stabilize a housing situation that was beyond his means, “but it’s really tough – I have no one to lean on and I’m doing this all myself.” They are not feeling the love.
God figured out early in the creation story that loneliness was bad. “It is not good for the Human to be alone,” says the Creator in Genesis 2:18. A single human being was divided into two, so they would have each other. Apparently, the animals in the garden weren’t very good company.
What God doesn’t explain in that story is why loneliness is bad. But I think this week’s story of Jacob wrestling with the angel explains it in a way that rings true with my experience.
Genesis 32:25 reads, “And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.” Like Jacob, when we are alone, we’re often left alone to ruminate on and wrestle with our demons – and our angels. Either we are tempted by the gnawing voices pushing us to go against our better judgment, or else shamed by the “better angels of our nature” asking us why we weren’t good enough.
My Bhutanese-Nepali friends often refer to this as “thinking too much,” whenever they see their parents who were uprooted from their homes and Bhutan drifting off into thought, crying spontaneously, or waking up screaming in the middle of the night. “Thinking too much” turns out to be a widely used idiom of distress in many parts of the world, corresponding to anxiety and stress in one place, preoccupation with a single problem in another, and an overwhelming accumulation of life stressors in still another.
In many cases, “thinking too much” is related to trauma, such as expulsion from one’s home. In others it is related to the breakdown of social relationships, like being abandoned by a husband or being separated from one’s children. So, I was struck by reading the commentary of Don Isaac Abarbanel, himself a survivor of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, on this verse.
According to Abarbanel, Jacob was “left alone” because, after depositing his family safely on the other side of the river, he went back for what the Talmud calls, “a few small jars.” Other commentators focus on Jacobs scrupulousness at valuing his minutest possessions even at great personal peril. For Abarbanel, calling them “small jars” means that, even though Jacob is actually going back for the lion’s share of his wealth, their value to him is minimal compared to his wives and children, whom he has already seemingly “lost” by ferrying them to a safe place he may never reach again. He is alone with gold that now seems almost worthless to him – and with the angels and demons that he now must wrestle with.
It’s a familiar story: I am here but my children are in Texas. I am here but my mother is still in Bhutan, and I haven’t seen her in 27 years. I am here with my children, but my husband left when they were small and never came back. The result in every case? Thinking too much.
Tellingly, “success,” as defined by family members getting steady jobs and buying houses and cars, makes the situation worse. People become busier, families move further out into the suburbs and away from naturally occurring dense clusters of people speaking the same language and sharing the same history of distress, and those who are already thinking too much have even less human contact and spend even more time thinking. Compared to the embrace of people, all the material success seems like nothing more than “a few small jars.”
Curiously, the commentator Rashbam speculates that when Jacob is left alone, he is planning on fleeing in a completely different direction. Presumably, this is to spare his family any further danger when Esau comes after him – but how does he think they will feel when Jacob never comes back? And how will he feel at being left with nothing but those few small jars of all he has worked for?
Rashbam says this is where the “man” comes in – that he is an angel sent to force Jacob to remain, and to confront Esau, rather than fleeing. As bad as loneliness is, Rashbam understands that lonely people often retreat into it even further by isolating, or even committing suicide, a problem that has particularly plagued the Bhutanese community in America.
My new friend Debra Whittam recently wrote a blog post that addressed this phenomenon of lonely people deliberately isolating. Even when people reach out to pull someone out of loneliness, there is a fear of accepting that help, perhaps worrying that it is not sincere. The loneliness is familiar; leaving it is frightening. What if the new, post-loneliness normal is even worse? Better to remain alone.
The Bhutanese community responds to this dynamic by seeing a friend as a psychologist. In our practice, we employ peer-support specialists – community members who are trained to visit people in their homes and break through the isolation. People often relocate from one community of refugees to another – Pittsburgh to Vermont, Arizona to Columbus, OH, Boise to Pittsburgh – to reconnect with family and friends who, in turn, connect them to jobs, homes, social supports – and doctors.
This is the job of the angel in the Jacob story. The angel appears to “lose” the wrestling match, with Jacob extracting the blessing of becoming Israel. But the angel is the real winner – by preventing Jacob from fleeing, and instead rescuing him from being alone, sending him back to face the fear of Esau, and back to the family he really needs. When they finally meet, Esau proudly boasts, “Yesh li rav – I have much.” To which Jacob eventually replies, “Yesh li kol – I have everything.” Everything I need.
May it be God’s will that we all merit the peace of mind to feel as Jacob did – that we have all we need. May we all see angels who help each other achieve that peace of mind.