Parashat Vayishlah

The Meaning of Aloneness
by Rabbi Jill Hammer

“Jacob went out from Beersheva, and went toward Haran.”  (Gen. 28:10)

“With my staff alone I crossed this Jordan.” (Gen. 32:11)

“Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him till dawn.” (Gen. 32:25)

“Dinah, the daughter Leah bore to Jacob, went out to see the daughters of the land.  Shechem son of Hamor the Hivite, a prince of the land, saw her, took her, and raped her.”  (Gen. 34:1)

There’s a hill I like to visit in Central Park. A wild meadow surrounded by five great trees, it’s often filled with head-high sumac and milkweed, or, if the Parks Department mows it, with marshy grass underfoot. Years ago, it had a mysterious dead tree at its center. Over the course of years, a vine wrapped around the tree, and when the tree finally fell, the vine took its place and became a thick, bright-berried bush. A slow-motion wrestling match. Now the vine has fallen, replaced by other plants. I love going to this spot to be alone. It’s been a place to meditate, to pray, and to engage in ritual.  Yet whenever I’m there, I start to listen for other people: hikers, or bikers passing on the road nearby. If I don’t hear anyone at all, I often interrupt my meditation and leave. I don’t want to be too alone, not in Central Park. Not anywhere, really.

Traditional commentators have often questioned Dinah for going out to see the daughters of the land, leaving herself unprotected and presumably alone, or at least without an escort. One midrash, famously quoted by Rashi, focuses on the wordvatetze, she went out, and complains that Dinah was a yatzanit like her mother: one who goes out, a restless woman. No one ever complains that Jacob was a yatzan, even though the parashah previous to this one begins “And Jacob went out.” No one ever questions Jacob for going back across the Jordan by himself and spending the night alone, even though he risked attack, and in fact was attacked. In fact, some commentators praise him for going back to retrieve small objects that he had left behind (Babylonian Talmud, Chullin 91a).  

Jacob was attacked by an angel, and his injury became a sign of his valor in wrestling all night. Dinah was attacked by a human being, and the text does not inform us about her injury–rather, Dinah disappears from the narrative, while the perceived tribal injury that results from the rape leads to the death of many. I make this comparison partly to show how different are the circumstances of men and women in the Bible and the midrash– and even today. For some of us, the quest to be alone in the wilderness is noble; for others, it’s considered foolish and dangerous. (We have to read into this not only gender but also race, as for some people in our society, walking alone in the wrong field, neighborhood or institution can be perceived as criminal.)

Yet the dilemma I face on my hill in the park, with all of its sociopolitical dynamics, is in essence a human dilemma. As humans who carry an entire world inside our own consciousness and experience, we crave being alone. We want to have the opportunity to pursue the interface between soul, God, and world, without the commentary of others. A story told by the Baal Shem Tov about his childhood includes this passage: “I was drawn to walk the fields and the great, deep forest near our village. Often I would spend the night in the field or forest. One morning in the forest I heard a human voice- a Jew in tallit and tefillin, praying with a passion I had never heard…‘Aren’t you afraid to be alone in the forest?’ the man asked me. I answered him: ‘I like the field and the forest, because there are no people…’” Aloneness gives us an experience intensely focused on our encounter with the mystery within and without. The advice I received the first time I spoke with Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi was to pray alone.

And, we don’t like to be alone. We can get lonely, and aloneness may not feel, or be, physically or emotionally safe. We may have negative associations to being by ourselves, or being by ourselves may cause difficult thoughts to arise. Some of our inner chatter is to distract us from the feeling of being alone. The moment of aloneness can produce the great wrestling, the struggle from which arises our new name. And, the moment of aloneness can be a moment of trauma, a moment when we cannot protect ourselves from what arises. The Yiddish poet Anna Margolin writes in her poem “Dear Monsters”: “Dear monsters, be patient. Night comes, and the heart, sick from an old guilt, defenseless, alone, hears the approach of footsteps…Now you are here!” And the Hazon Ish writes: “If a person is a baal nefesh (sensitive person), and the time is a quiet time, free from the pull of desires, and the eye opens to the glorious vision of the heights of the heaven and to the depths of the earth, the person becomes aroused and terrified– for the world appears like an impossible riddle, hidden and wondrous. And this riddle encircles the heart and mind and one becomes faint-hearted.” (Hazon Ish,Emunah uBitahon, Chapter 1)  

How do we cultivate aloneness, what Rebbe Nachman called hitbodedut, and also cope with the dangers? I’m inspired by the text from Sefer Yetzirah, an ancient Jewish mystical work, that reads: Im ratz pikha ledaber o libkha leharher shuv lamakom. When the mouth runs to speak, or the heart to murmur, return to the Place.” Makom, place, here means the divine, but also the place one is in: the time and space one inhabits. In returning to the Place, we can be as aware as we are when we are alone, even when we are with people, and we can be in relationship, as we are when we are with people, even when we are alone.

I can’t solve the impact on my life (or on Dinah’s life) of the real or perceived dangers of being alone. The issue of safety for those who walk alone remains a real issue in our world. And, I continue to be fascinated by the mystery of Jacob’s aloneness, which leads to wrestling: “Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until dawn broke.” This type of aloneness remains a state I both crave and fear.  

I do find it comforting that when Jacob comes to Bethel for the second time, he is not alone as he was when he had the dream, and saw the ladder. “Then Jacob came to Luz-that is, Beth El, he and all the people who were with him.” (Genesis 35:6)  Jacob is no longer alone, yet he still has a vision. He receives, again, his new name Israel: “You shall be called Jacob no more, for Israel shall be your name.” (Genesis 35:11) Now he receives the name in community, surrounded by family. Perhaps Jacob has now learned– as I wish to learn– to be alone even when with people, and to feel connected even when alone.


Rabbi Jill Hammer, PhD, is the Director of Spiritual Education at the Academy for Jewish Religion.