What Thanksgiving Tells Us About America, Community, Loneliness, and God

Thanksgiving tells us a lot about America, about our yearning for community and connection, about loneliness and about God.

Loneliness destroys us in the same way that bullets and poverty destroy us. It eats away at our spiritual wellbeing. It eviscerates our sense of wholeness.

In fact, loneliness kills. “O chevruta, o mituta,” it says in the Talmud (Taanit 23a): Either companionship or death. And the other great religious traditions agree.

No human being is capable of living an atomized life. We live by community; otherwise, we live badly, or not at all.

But now the puzzle: Americans seem to be choosing to condemn themselves to the hell of loneliness. As David Brooks recently pointed out in the New York Times, the number of Americans who are living alone has risen from 9 percent in 1950 to 28 percent today. This latter number is shocking; that so many choose a solitary life is seemingly contrary to experience, instinct and good sense.

There are a number of reasons why this is so. A major one is that advanced democratic societies are necessarily untidy and uncomfortable affairs that dissolve traditional bonds of family and community; and what is generally true is particularly the case in difficult economic times.

Another reason is that technology isolates us, and not just in our leisure hours. For the first time in the modern era, many of us – even if we are employed by large companies – can use technology to do our work in isolation, and we are often encouraged to do so.

And, of course, some of the founding myths of American culture – the lone cowboy of the American west, taciturn and heroic – romanticize the virtues of the independent, solitary hero.

Stripped of community and companionship, Americans have created substitutes in order to cope. These replacement mechanisms may be unfulfilling, but they serve a purpose as we try to fill the void in our lives. Our obsession with celebrity, hardly a new phenomenon but one that has now reached unheard of dimensions, can perhaps be explained in this way. Lacking real relationships, we embrace pseudo-relationships with the rich, famous and beautiful, devouring every detail about them that the media can provide. And then, of course, we use Facebook and text messages to connect with hundreds of friends; these connections have positive dimensions to be sure, but a “friend” in this context is often no more than a passing acquaintance.

But now the good news: Our innate desire to belong, rooted in the human condition, resists society’s effort to isolate us. We fight back, sometimes without knowing it. Even in today’s harsh climate, when so many of us drift without an anchor, we gravitate toward real-life, face-to-face, tactile communities and to family above all – the fundamental unit of the human tribe.

And never more so than at Thanksgiving. At Thanksgiving, Americans are on the move, finding their way back to parents and cousins and elderly aunts. We crave the comfort and familiarity of community, acknowledging, for a moment at least, that in the lonely dark of our homes and apartments, we feel defenseless against the beasts of modern life.

Of course, once we get there, we confront the aggravations and pettiness that family and community bring. We groan at the jokes and stories too often told and the sibling rivalries still unresolved. Living alone may be impossible, but living together is not the easiest thing either.

Still, on balance, we always find solace in the support that our extended families bring.

What does this have to do with religion? Quite a bit, actually, and on Thanksgiving we all sense it. Even the most secular families are inclined to say some kind of a Thanksgiving prayer, acknowledging the holiness of our collective effort to hold each other up and provide for each other in times of need.

Religion at its best affirms the ties of family and community, investing family celebrations with meaning and structuring family life with ritual and rules of conduct. Communities can exist without religion and God; but the most satisfying communities are those that draw on the traditions and ceremonies that religion provide. And religion at its best is not about bricks, budgets, or numbers, but about fostering sacred community among vulnerable human beings who yearn for connection.

Thanksgiving has a special hold on us, and we should rejoice in its blessings. And we should remember what it teaches us: our deep and profound need for intimacy and belonging.

Originally published on Huffington Post

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Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie

About Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie is president emeritus of the Union for Reform Judaism. He speaks and writes frequently about Israel, religious life, social justice, and other topics of interest to the Jewish community. Read his full bio and writings on the URJ website.

2 Responses to “What Thanksgiving Tells Us About America, Community, Loneliness, and God”

  1. avatar

    Thanksgiving, Passover, Yom Kippur & Rosh Hashana are my favorite holidays! I thank God for all my blessings. I try to think of all of my blessings, including air, plumbing, clean water and hot showers. This Thanksgiving, I was thanking God for Benjamin Netanyahu! I pray for his protection, prosperity and wisdom every day! He is a wonderful man and a great leader for Israel! God bless him REAL GOOD!

  2. avatar

    Rather than blame technology and large employers for the increasing atomization of our culture, it may be worth contemplating an alternative explanation . As you noted, human beings instinctively form voluntary groups. Taparelli who coined the modern definition of “social justice” noted that a just society depends on voluntary forms of association through which groups naturally provide social justice. He not only insisted on freedom for these various groups, but noted the importance of those closest to the ground. He observed that these associations were critical because people are most directly involved in them, encouraging personal relationships and local responsibility. Writing at the same time, Tocqueville noted how Americans naturally formed these associations to perform their social work. The cowboy may be mythologized for his rugged individualism, but perhaps is admired because he can solve problems on his own without waiting for a Federal grant and an environmental impact study.

    Over the past 50 years, Taparelli’s original definition of social justice has been completely inverted. Government has become default solution for every societal problem, yet social problems stubbornly persist. Indeed many of these well intentioned programs worsen the very pathologies they were supposed to alleviate, yet the effectiveness of our current programs is rarely questioned. That is not to say that government does have a significant role to play for societal well-being, but when it is seen as the primary source of societal good, there are unintended consequences, especially for the faith based communiites.

    As government grows, it inevitably encroaches upon the space occupied by the natural voluntary associations which serve as the buffers between the individual and the state. “The Life of Julia” is a perfect illustration. Julia has no parents, family or friends. She is not a member of a church or any other community organization. She has a child but no partner is mentioned. Other than motherhood, she elides through life seemingly without another significant human interaction. The one constant in her life the Federal government. And given its benevolence, who needs anyone else? As an apparent net importer of tax dollars, Julia never ponders the sustainability of the system that eases her way through life, nor does she pay it forward in her community. There is a price to be paid for outsourcing of personal virtue.

    As religious organizations enthusiastically solicit government to provision the social services formerly regarded as one of their primary missions, they contribute to their increasing irrevalence. For many, big government has become a quasi-religious institution with its leaders described in terms formerly reserved for the divine. Not surprisingly, government increasing views religous organizations as an impediment, rather than a partner. As an example, recent HHS regulations promulated as part of the ACA define religion in the narrowest possible terms “that (1) has the inculcation of religious values as its purpose; (2) primarily employs persons who share its religious tenets; (3) primarily serves persons who share its religious tenets.”. Certainly doesn’t leave much of room for a Catholic hospital or Tikkun Olam?

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