The Importance of Being Alone (Ideas #50)

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." Henry David Thoreau

Not long ago, my travels brought me to a community without a regular minyan. This was in stark contrast to my home. Where I live, it is often easier to pray with a minyan than to pray without one. As such, being alone in prayer for several days was something that made me pause and reflect.

There is no doubt about the benefits of praying with a minyan, both halachically and sociologically. As with almost all things in life, however, advantages always come with accompanying disadvantages. Although the advantages of praying with a minyan far outweigh the disadvantages, it is important for us to be aware of the latter. One disadvantage of any group activity is losing sight of the thing that we are actually doing. We know that we do many things in groups that we would not otherwise do by ourselves. This is because we are usually less reserved about doing something if everyone else around us is also doing it. We somehow feel that the endorsement of the group releases us from the standard need for awareness of that which we are doing. On some level, this is also what happens when we pray with a minyan. The minyan helps us forget what we are doing and the critical fact that we are standing in front of


While on the road, I had the opportunity of being at an observation point near the top of the Rocky Mountains. One imagines that this is an ideal place to feels one's existential aloneness in front of G-d. Thus, I was taken aback, though unfortunately not surprised, to see someone glued to her  cellphone the whole time she was there. Apparently, the thought of being alone was not so comfortable.

The communications revolution has truly made it more difficult to feel alone. Gadgets that either put us in contact with others (phones, walkie-talkies, etc), or give us the impression of being in contact with others (radios, CD players, cassette players, etc.) are becoming more and more portable. The clever slogan for the air phones, telephones that can be used from airplanes, summarizes it well - "Now, even the sky is not the limit". As the various communications companies are happy to remind us, there is almost no place where we must be alone. Instead, we are constantly connected to the group. One result is that we forget our ultimate existential aloneness.

Being alone was a framework that could be taken for granted in the past. A man working in the fields would generally be alone with his Maker. But even when he came home, when he was alone, he was really alone. There were no communication devices to alter that situation. And as a result of the inevitable situations of being alone, it was almost impossible to hide behind the group. The solitude one regularly encountered in the past, however, is disappearing -- partly because of the advances in technology, but also partly because we choose to constantly use that technology. Choosing to avoid aloneness is understandable - solitude can be very depressing and debilitating, not to mention frightening. And it is appropriate to be involved in the life of the group - but only if we also have some time to truly be with ourselves. If we constantly choose to avoid being alone, we lose a very important dimension of our existence.

Aloneness is a very real feeling - a feeling of truth: We come into this world alone and we leave it alone. We are judged largely as individuals. By truly being aware of this fact, we are more in tune with our limitations and Thoreau's "essential facts of life." Such awareness allows us to retain the proper modesty of a truly religious person.

Indeed, one of the most striking paradoxes in the Torah is that it refers to Moshe, the greatest man that ever lived, as the most humble of all men. It causes us to wonder how such a great man would not be aware of his own greatness. If we reflect more carefully, however, we understand that Moshe's modesty did not come from self-deception, but rather from self-awareness. It was his wisdom that allowed him to understand his limits as an individual mortal man. A man, no matter how great, is strikingly insignificant in front of G-d. Thus, another one of our spiritual giants, King David, writes in Tehillim, "I am a worm and not a man." This, because all men are more akin to worms then they are to G-d.

This is certainly not a call to avoid praying in a minyan. When we go as a group to a person in power, it is easier to lose sight of our frailty - there is a sense of being part of a greater unit, which somehow gives us the gumption to do things we otherwise would not. So too, with prayer. On the whole, the concept of minyan allows us to feel more comfortable in properly making requests of G-d in our prayers, something we are meant to do. After all, we are commanded to pray and prayer is largely defined as the petitioning G-d for that which we want.

That being said, when we do have to pray by ourselves, we can experience something we do not allow ourselves to experience often enough ? the fundamental reality of our basic aloneness.