Do you have what it takes to survive by yourself in the wild?” So goes the come-on for the hit reality show Alone, where “hard-core survivalists” spend a year — all alone — in the wilderness.
Judaism’s spiritual parallel is Yom Kippur. Not exactly “the wild” and only for a day, but despite the Kol Nidrei crowd, it’s all about being alone and even (to trust the liturgy) surviving. Can you spend even one day alone, confronting everything you’d rather not admit: how fast you’re aging, what you have amounted to so far, whether you have it in you to change. Preparation for Yom Kippur begins this week with the reading that introduces the penitential month of Elul: “See,” it begins, “I set before you blessing and curse.” Though addressed to all Israel, the “see” is singular, leading commentators to explain, “Spoken to each and every person, singly” — alone.
The shofar is blown daily during Elul, a single blast, piercing to the individual soul, because the commandment to hear the shofar is addressed to each of us, alone: No one else can hear it for us.
And no one can confess for us on Yom Kippur. Though our confession sounds communal (“For the sin which we have sinned…”) the rabbis instruct us to confess in our own words as well.
Jews are not good at being alone. We like to talk. We like to hear each other, to know we’re not alone.
But we are.
Daily moments of aloneness arrive with choices of conscience no one else knows about. They wink at us each morning from the bathroom mirror, reminding us of who we really are. They hammer on our consciousness when we are sick or weary, when people say, “I know how you feel,” but we know they don’t.
If we are lucky, we will get time to age: another case of being alone, in disengagement from responsibilities, from associates who once answered beeps and sent us e-mails, and eventually, as memory and mental competence wane, from friends and family.
Final aloneness arrives with death. Others watch, but we alone must face the awful fact of being, really, “here today” but “gone tomorrow.”
Our model for aloneness is Moses himself. Moses leads as we wish we could, but errs as we know we do. He loses his temper (kills the taskmaster), suffers self-doubt (needs Aaron as his spokesman), and is not your ideal parent or family man.
But he masters being alone. As a solitary desert shepherd, he sees the burning bush. Alone atop the mountain, he receives the Torah. Alone again, atop another mountain, he will die.
Or Hachaim thinks Moses himself is saying “See,” instructing us the way God instructed him: in lonely solitude. “We all inherit a spark from Moses,” says the Zohar: the spark of knowing how to be alone.
But the spark needs fanning — for which we have Elul: to try to disengage from the din of daily wear and tear, to reflect on who we are and who we want to be. To arrive at Yom Kippur, prepared to be alone, as if it were the day of death. Do that, and it won’t be so bad even on the day we really die. Like anything else, dying needs practice. And it’s never too soon to start.