It’s Okay to Be Alone — In Our Personal Teivahs
By: Yitzy Cwibeker
Sometimes we need to be alone. We need time to embrace the struggle of being on our own, allowing ourselves to delve into the innermost, darkest caverns of our minds and hearts. To feel totally lost and abandoned. And upon emerging, we’ll have the energy to connect to our true selves and impact others, rebuilding a prolific world for ourselves and those around us.
[loosely adapted from various talks by R’ Moshe Weinberger]
From all the infinite ways Hashem could have saved Noach, why did he force him into the teivah and keep him locked up? Alone in the world, nothing but the confines of the teivah sounds reclusive and isolating. Moreover, Medrash tells us that Noach felt tortured and trapped. He was repeatedly reciting Tehillim chapter 142 (which he initially composed and was only formally incorporated by Dovid Hamelech later) “הוציאה ממסגר נפשי” “bring my soul out of prison.” The teivah seemed like solitary confinement, a personal “prison.”
There is a thought, often credited to R’ Tzadok, that whenever we find something in the Torah for the first time, it is the correlative script for that occurrence in the future. For example, Adam sin’s eating from the עץ הדעת is the script and blueprint of all future sin. All sin can be traced back, in some way, to that source. The same notion is true with Noach’s salvation. Noach was the first person in the Torah to be rescued. Therefore, any time a jew throughout history is blessed with Hashem’s salvation and is either rescued or saved, it is a page out of Noach’s playbook. So then, why establish the blueprint for all rescue missions–for all generations–in such an unsettling manner? That Noach, the rescuee, is screaming and crying entirely throughout the rescue mission?! Imagine throwing a life preserver wrapped in barbed wire at someone drowning in raging waters. The first rescue mission of all humanity could have been a blissful experience. Think of Noach living freely atop a vast mountain range designated just for him and his family — with unicorns and rainbows!
Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, in his book Out of the Depths, recounts the tragic story of the Schijveschuurder family, who made aliya from Holland to Israel in 1980. Moti, the father, gave up his business and built a cheder in Talmon. While the mother, Tzira, commuted daily to Yerushalayim for over an hour to teach in a special school for deaf children. They had eight children.
On August 9, 2001, on a Thursday afternoon, Moti and Tzira went out to lunch with their five youngest children at Sbarro’s Pizza in Yerushalayim. A Palestinian terrorist, strapped with explosives, walked in and detonated a bomb, killing fifteen and injuring over one hundred (including a 5Towns resident vacationing there with his family, and I remember, as a fourteen-year-old, seeing his face covered in scars and bandages). Moti, Tzira, and three of their children: Ra’aya, Avraham Yitzchak, and Chemda, ages 14, 4, and 2, were among those killed.
Two other children — 10-year-old Leahle and 8-year-old Chayale — were severely burned and rushed to Bikur Cholim hospital. Rabbi Lau received a call from Tzira’s sister with heart-wrenching news that evening, asking him to officiate Moti, Tzira, and the children’s funerals. She asked him not because he was the Chief Rabbi but because he had a personal relationship with the family going back many years. Rabbi Lau had, in fact, officiated at Moti and Tzira’s wedding 25 years earlier.
As Rabbi Lau was about to speak at the funeral, an ambulance pulled up. Ten-year-old Leahle, seriously burned and covered in bandages, was wheeled out on a stretcher surrounded by doctors and nurses. Leahle received special permission to leave the hospital because she had been adamant about being present at her parents’ funeral. Rabbi Lau describes how he was so rattled with emotion and could hardly speak.
Later that week, Rabbi Lau visited the Schijveschuurder home where the three older children were sitting shiva. Again, while there, an ambulance arrived, carrying Leahle. She wanted to be there with her siblings for the remainder of the shiva.
Before leaving, Rabbi Lau approached Leahle and asked about her younger sister Chayale who was still in the hospital. Leahle told Rabbi Lau that she had seen Chayale two hours earlier. And before leaving, she told her she was going home for the rest of the shiva and unfolded to Rabbi Lau how they both were crying on Chayale’s bed together.
Then Leahle perked up, “It’s good you asked about Chayale. Because when I told her I was coming home, she said, I’m sure Rabbi Lau will be there. He was close with Abba and Ima. Please tell him when you see him that just as there is a mitzvah of nichum aveilim (consoling the mourners), there is also a mitzvah of bikur cholim (visiting the sick). I hope he will visit me too.”
Rabbi Lau describes that the first thing he did the next morning was visit Chayale at the hospital. He describes witnessing the sad sight of her lying in severe pain with bandages covering most of her body. Her face was burned, her arms and legs were broken, and despite the quantities of morphine she had received, she was obviously suffering intense pain. However, Rabbi Lau noticed her eyes beginning to well up in tears. Sitting at her bedside silently, feeling helpless, he wondered what he could possibly say to this poor little girl. Unexpectedly, he found himself telling her a story.
He turned to her and said, “Chayale. There’s something I want to tell you. I also know someone who suddenly lost his Abba and Imma when he was only 8 years old. But he was even less fortunate than you are. You have two savtas (grandmothers) and a saba (grandfather). Three remaining brothers. People who love you and will comfort you when you leave this hospital. Even the prime minister of Israel has come to visit you and brought you a dubi (teddy bear). You have so many people who love you outside this hospital, waiting for you to be strong enough to leave. However, that little boy had no saba or savta. No friends. No one to hug him or kiss him. No one to love him. He had only one surviving brother. That little boy is now….”
But before Rabbi Lau could finish his sentence, little Chayale looked up at him with the slightest of smiles and interjected,כן, אני ידעת. זה אתה.” ” “Yes, I know. That [boy] is you.”
Rabbi Lau, affectionately overcome with emotion, concluded, “You see, Chayale, it’s all up to you. Take an example from my personal story. You’re never alone. Hashem helps those who help themselves. Don’t give up.”
What connected Rabbi Lau to little Chayale, whose entire world washed away with a flick of a switch? What was in Rabbi Lau’s simple words that comforted Chayale at such a vulnerable stage in her life? It is because he was telling her that I, too, was alone. I know what it feels like to be forsaken, abandoned, and lost. I lived it. It was torturous, and I cried. But I persevered. And Hashem was with me the entire way. Don’t give up; he’ll be by your side too. This message resonated with Chayala. She connected with it, and it carried her through her darkest times.
Chayale (now Chaya) is married today and, last year, gave birth to a son who she named after her father. May Hashem shower Chaya and her family with unlimited blessings, and may she continue to be a beacon of hope for terror victims worldwide.
The Chasam Sofer says that Hashem placed Noach in the Teivah because it was a token of measure for measure. Since Noach isolated himself from the world and didn’t bring those around him to do teshuva, Hashem forced him into a year of isolation and loneliness.
The idea, however, is more profound than just measure for measure. Hashem forced Noach into the teivah and taught him the mystery of a broken heart, enabling him to rebuild the world after the Flood. Hashem was teaching Noach a concept within teshuva: it’s okay to be alone with Hashem in the innermost chambers.
The Gemara in Chagiga Daf 5b offers the following mystic discussion:
״וְאִם לֹא תִשְׁמָעוּהָ בְּמִסְתָּרִים תִּבְכֶּה נַפְשִׁי מִפְּנֵי גֵוָה״, אָמַר רַב שְׁמוּאֵל בַּר אִינְיָא מִשְּׁמֵיהּ דְּרַב: מָקוֹם יֵשׁ לוֹ לְהַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא וּמִסְתָּרִים שְׁמוֹ. מַאי ״מִפְּנֵי גֵוָה״? אָמַר רַב שְׁמוּאֵל בַּר יִצְחָק: מִפְּנֵי גַּאֲווֹתָן שֶׁל יִשְׂרָאֵל שֶׁנִּיטְּלָה מֵהֶם וְנִתְּנָה לַגּוֹיִם. רַבִּי שְׁמוּאֵל בַּר נַחְמָנִי אָמַר: מִפְּנֵי גַּאֲווֹתָהּ שֶׁל מַלְכוּת שָׁמַיִם.
The verse states: “But if you will not hear it, my soul shall weep in secret [bemistarim] for your pride” (Jeremiah 13:17). Rav Shmuel bar Inya said in the name of Rav: The Holy One, Blessed be He, has a place where He cries, and its name is Mistarim. What is the meaning of “for your pride”? Rav Shmuel bar Yitzḥak said: Hashem cries due to the pride of the Jewish people, which was taken from them and given to the gentile nations. Rav Shmuel bar Naḥmani said: He cries due to the pride of the kingdom of Heaven, which was removed from the world.
וּמִי אִיכָּא בְּכִיָּה קַמֵּיהּ הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא? וְהָאָמַר רַב פָּפָּא: אֵין עֲצִיבוּת לִפְנֵי הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״הוֹד וְהָדָר לְפָנָיו עוֹז וְחֶדְוָה בִּמְקוֹמוֹ״! לָא קַשְׁיָא: הָא בְּבָתֵּי גַוָּאֵי, הָא בְּבָתֵּי בַרָאֵי.
The Gemara asks: Is there crying before the Holy One, Blessed be He? Didn’t Rav Pappa say: There is no sadness before the Holy One, Blessed be He, as it is stated: “Honor and majesty are before Him; strength and gladness are in His place” (Chronicles 16:27)? The Gemara responds: This is not difficult. This statement that Hashem cries refer to the innermost chambers, where He can cry in secret. In contrast, this statement that He does not cry refers to the outer chambers.
The inner chamber, בְּמִסְתָּרִים תִּבְכֶּה נַפְשִׁי, is where Hashem is alone, brokenhearted, and crying. Hashem was revealing to Noach: I want to show you want something missing in your life until now. It is called בְּמִסְתָּרִים תִּבְכֶּה נַפְשִׁי.
Granted, Noach was a Tzadik. “Noah was a righteous man; he was perfect in his generations” He was living a joyous life in his idyllic world. However, he was living only in the “outer chambers” of עוֹז וְחֶדְוָה בִּמְקוֹמוֹ. He left the entire surrounding world behind. In order for Noach to be able to bring the world to Hashem, initiating teshuva, he needed to feel what it’s like to be in the inner chamber of בְּמִסְתָּרִים תִּבְכֶּה נַפְשִׁי. Hashem was telling him that you have to know what it feels like to be someone who has been broken and alone. You have to know what it feels like to be someone who has failed and struggled. To influence, impact, and connect with other people, you need to connect to that mysterious world of loneliness and know what a broken heart is.
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהֹוָה֙ לְנֹ֔חַ בֹּֽא־אַתָּ֥ה וְכָל־בֵּֽיתְךָ֖ אֶל־הַתֵּבָ֑ה כִּי־אֹֽתְךָ֥ רָאִ֛יתִי צַדִּ֥יק לְפָנַ֖י בַּדּ֥וֹר הַזֶּֽה
“And the Lord said to Noah, “Come into the ark, you and all your household, for it is you that I have seen as a righteous man before Me in this generation.”
The simple meaning is that, in a good way, Hashem is saving Noach because he was a Tzadik. But now we have a deeper understanding as well. Hashem was taking Noach by the hand and saying: “Come. You need to spend some time alone. If you want to be able to build a world, you need to know what it feels like to be totally lost, and you didn’t feel that yet. You were only a tzadik לְפָנַ֖י — in the outer chambers. BEFORE ME, but not WITH me in my inner chambers. Now, I’m bringing you into the inner chamber ofְּמִסְתָּרִים תִּבְכֶּה נַפְשִׁי, and it’s going to be hard over there. There’s going to be a lot of crying taking place. I’ll be crying, and you’ll be crying. But when you leave, you’ll have the awareness, insight, and know-how to rebuild the world.”
That’s what Noach was saying: הוציאה ממסגר נפשי. Once inside, he was begging Hashem — please, I had enough already. I understand now. I tasted the feeling of a broken heart. Please take me out.
Time and again, we feel that Hashem is bringing us into a teivah. A personal prison of solitary confinement. We feel isolated, abandoned, and overwhelmed with loneliness. However, take solace in the fact that you’re in good company. You just entered Hashem’s inner chamber of ְּמִסְתָּרִים תִּבְכֶּה נַפְשִׁי. Hashem is right alongside you, giving you a chance to feel and become more sympathetic. When it’s all done, and you ride out the wave of emotions and the flood waters of chaos are receding, you will see how your loneliness enabled you to rebuild worlds.
Being alone is something that many people dread, but it is essential for growth and personal development. Spending time by yourself can be scary, especially if you’re not used to it. It can seem like a waste of time, but being alone can be among the most productive times of your day. There are plenty of benefits to spending time alone that you might not have considered. Being alone forces you to confront yourself and your emotions head-on so that you can better understand who you are, where you come from, and who you want to be. Here are some reasons why being alone is important — and why you should embrace it more often:
1. Being alone can be a catalyst for personal growth.
Being alone can encourage you to really dive into your emotions and see where they come from. It helps you be more self-aware and self-reflective. When you’re with other people, you might not notice your own emotions, or you might not know where they came from. But when you’re alone, these emotions are sometimes amplified and easier to interpret. Being alone may encourage you to reflect on your past experiences and how they’ve shaped you into who you are today. It may help you understand the origins of your anxieties and fears and how you can move past them.
It’s also a great time to try new hobbies you’ve been meaning to take up. You can try practicing a new instrument, reading, writing, painting, or anything else you’ve wanted to improve. Being alone is an excellent opportunity to try something new and boost your skills.
2. It allows you to recharge and feel refreshed.
Being alone can help you recharge. Being alone allows you to return to your more natural state of being, spending time with yourself and returning to your roots. It gives you the time to unplug and be mindful, which is something that most of us don’t get enough of in our lives. Being alone for a few hours can clear your mind, give you clarity, and be a much-needed break from the stress of everyday life. During the day, we encounter plenty of sensory stimuli, from touching surfaces and people to loud noises and bright lights. Being alone allows you to remove these stimuli so that you can restore yourself and feel refreshed. You can use your alone time to meditate, read, go for walks, or simply just sit and do nothing.
3. By being alone, you’ll gain confidence in your own self-worth.
When you spend time with yourself, you have nowhere to hide. You’re forced to look in the mirror and be honest with yourself. This can be scary and challenging, but it’s essential to growing and developing as a person. It helps you learn to like yourself and be okay with who you are. You’re able to confront your fears and insecurities head-on. You can see them for what they are and understand where they come from. This can help you gain confidence in your own self-worth. If you’re afraid of public speaking, for example, you can use this time to practice and get better at it. If you’re scared of rejection, you can use it to practice being okay with it and accept it. By facing down your own insecurities, you can overcome them and gain confidence in yourself. You’ll feel more comfortable in your own skin and better understand your strengths and weaknesses. It’ll help you build self-respect and self-esteem.
Being alone can be agonizing, but it doesn’t have to be. There are plenty of benefits to spending time by yourself. Hashem taught Noach the value and virtue of being alone. That enduring lesson has given us the armor to withstand our daily challenges and to break free of our personal prisons. So, whenever we feel alone, remember 1) this is an excellent opportunity to check in with ourselves and reflect, 2) ask yourself how you can use this time to recharge, and 3) know that you have the Infinite best roommate/companion/road trip buddy who’s tagging along holding your hand (so how alone are your really?).
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