We find the Hebrew roots for “Shabbat” and “desolation” each repeated in this week’s Torah Portion seven times in a single 6 verse passage. “Desolation” is repeatedly referred to as a Shabbat for the Land of Israel. Shabbat is meant to be a day of wonder and happiness. What aspect of Shabbat could be construed as “desolation”?
The desolation the Torah refers to is the condition of the land in the absence of its people. It will lie fallow; abandoned and solitary. Although Shabbat is generally regarded as a day of spirituality through community and connecting with others, there is a Jewish tradition to find spirituality in solitude. There are biblical precedents such as Moses communing alone with God for 40 days on Mt. Sinai. Philo mentions a monastic 1st century Jewish sect. Various famous rabbis in history secluded themselves, sometimes for years at a time. Jewish mysticism teaches the practice of “hitbodidut;” a discipline of self imposed isolation for purposes of prayer and contemplation. Nachman of Breslov urged his followers to spend at least an hour a day (and ideally the entire day!) alone meditating and speaking to God.
Mainstream Judaism has generally resisted withdrawal from society. The call for social justice, prayer with the more the better, and the abundance of community social events suggest the Jewish ideal is to be found in being together, not solitude. On the other hand, there may be benefits to reserve time in our hectic, hyperconnected lives to reacquaint ourselves with ourselves, and to relearn how to be intentionally alone. The son of Maimonides, Rabbi Abraham Maimonides, wrote of a blessing which used to be recited by the sages of earlier generations: “May God enable you to feel companionship in solitude and loneliness in a crowd.” Sounds intriguing. Perhaps worth striving for.
Rabbi Mitch Levine