No man is an island.” “It takes a village.” These are just some of the clichés that are used to convey the importance of social groups, of the realization that people cannot “go at it alone.”
But just as it is vital that each of us learns that we are ultimately limited in what we can accomplish by ourselves, it is equally vital that we learn of the benefits of occasional solitude and of the need to sometimes just be alone.
In this week’s double Torah portion, Tazria-Metzora, we read at length and in great detail about an individual who is afflicted by a condition known as tzara’at, often translated as leprosy. It is a condition which is characterized by specific discolorations of the skin and which is understood by our sages to be the consequence of immoral behavior, particularly malicious gossip.
The Torah prescribes that such an individual rend his clothes and let his hair grow. He is considered ritually unclean, and “…he shall dwell apart; his dwelling shall be outside that camp.” (Leviticus 13:46)
Opinions vary as to why he must be removed from society. Some say simply that he is quarantined because his condition is contagious. Others insist that since his misdeeds caused harm to others, he must be punished by living apart from others.
I prefer, however, the view that believes that a period of solitude is imposed upon this individual to afford him an opportunity to think, to reconsider his actions, and to resolve to live a new moral lifestyle. He is afforded the social isolation necessary for thoroughgoing introspection, a chance to think for himself.
There is a lesson here about the benefits of solitude that is of renewed relevance in our day and age.
The Spring 2010 edition of The American Scholar carries an essay by William Deresiewicz that he delivered to the plebe class at the United States Military Academy at West Point last October. The essay is entitled “Solitude and Leadership.”
Deresiewicz eloquently conveys the message to these future military leaders that leadership demands a mindset which can only come about with frequent and sustained periods of solitude. He emphasizes the importance of thinking and writes, “Thinking means concentrating on one thing long enough to develop an idea about it.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson made Deresiewicz’s point long ago when he said, “He who should inspire and lead his race must be defended from traveling with the souls of other men, from living, breathing, reading, and writing in the daily, time-worn yoke of their opinions.”
These opinions of a famous 19th-century essayist and one of his contemporary counterparts stress and amplify a message implicit in this week’s Torah portion. The message is that time by oneself, reflecting and engaging in serious introspection, is an essential component of self-improvement and a prerequisite not only for membership in society, but for leadership of society.
Jewish sources go much further than Emerson and Deresiewicz. The latter restrict their insightful comments to the importance of solitude in everyday, mundane affairs. Our tradition goes beyond that and teaches that solitude is necessary for spiritual growth and for religious leadership.
The sages of the Talmud insist upon the necessity of “cheshbon hanefesh,” self-reckoning. The Jewish ethical treatises of medieval times recommend that one regularly withdraw from society to engage in such self-reckoning. Chasidim, and most particularly the followers of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, daily engage in periods of “hitbodedut,” solitary contemplation.
The secular writers quoted above are helpful in that they make it clear that solitude need not entail mystical practices or spiritual techniques. Rather, solitude provides an opportunity for thinking on one’s own and for concentrating deeply without the undue influences of one’s social surround.
I personally am convinced that occasional solitude would be a healthy antidote to the blind conformity that is imposed upon all of us by our contemporary world.
Once again, the Torah, in the midst of a passage which seems most out of tune with modernity, gives us a lesson essential for coping with modernity.
Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is executive vice president emeritus of the Orthodox Union.